Bulls should cruise past Pacers in opening round

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Bulls should cruise past Pacers in opening round

Saturday, April 16, 2011Posted: 10:30 AM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

Its finally time. Time to tell whether, after a 62-win regular season that resulted in the leagues top overall seed in the postseason, the Bulls championship aspirations are reality or a figment of their (and an increasingly growing fan bases) imaginations.

Chicagos first-round series against the Pacers might not seem like much of a test after racking up a 3-1 record during the seasonthe lone loss, an overtime defeat in Indiana with Carlos Boozer out of the lineup, was the Bulls sole Central Division setback of the seasonbut it can be used as a measuring stick for the future.

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Such issues as Joakim Noahs return to form, Boozer and Noahs on-court chemistry, the extent of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeaus playoff rotation, the level to which Derrick Rose raises his game and whether Luol Dengs quietly stellar campaign continues in the postseason are all things to watch.

But perhaps the most pressing item on the agenda, however, is the question of the Bulls playoff experience.

There are key Bulls who have made deep postseason runs, such as veteran Kurt Thomas and the former Utah trio of Boozer, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver, but the only player on the team who has won a championship is seldom-used reserve forward Brian Scalabrine, who will likely be inactive for games.

While Deng has been to the second round and both Rose and Noah played major roles in the Bulls classic first-round series against the Celtics two years agoTaj Gibson has also had a taste of the playoffs from his experience as a rookie starter in last springs first-round series against Clevelandthis Bulls team isnt exactly teeming with grizzled vets, who have been through the battles that forge reputations in this league.

But although the Bulls freely acknowledge they havent proved anything yet, this squad has carried themselves with the end in mind all season. In terms of their preparation, maturitylocker-room issues and off-court drama isnt going on unreported by the media, they simply dont existand ability to bounce back from losses, the Bulls are a throwback to another era, in which basketball was just about the game and nothing else.

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Unfortunately for their first-round opponent, Indiana, the Bulls have also displayed another qualityholding grudgesthat has served them well. From the sting of losing their last matchup to the Pacers to Danny Grangers inflammatory comments (whether or not the Bulls admit to it), not to mention simply being motivated for the playoffs in general, its unlikely the Pacers even come close to testing the Bulls' mettle in the opening round. Heres a closer look at the series:

Point guard: Derrick Rose vs. Darren Collison

Collison is a solid young player, but this is almost unfair. The likely league MVP will overpower his second-year counterpart and while Granger told reporters the Bulls go as Rose goes, the Pacers only win against Chicago during the series was when the All-Star point guard matched his career-high, scoring 42 points. Look for Rose to take his game to another level, not only dominating as a scorer, but consciously involving his teammates to prove Chicago isnt a one-man show.

Shooting guard: Keith Bogans vs. Paul George

Bogans has been much maligned by Bulls fans all seasonand its possible that Roses joking comments about utilizing President Barack Obama as the teams starting shooting guard at Navy Pier Thursday didnt helpbut hes played his role expertly, hitting timely three-pointers and playing tough defense, as well as facilitating ball movement. While almost nobody around the league would take Bogans over the rookie George in the future, the veterans physicality will be important against a bruising Indiana squad. George has been a starter for the Pacers since interim head coach Frank Vogel took over and shows flashes of potential occasionally, but its unlikely he has much of an impact in the series.

Small forward: Luol Deng vs. Danny Granger

Deng, in particular, claimed to not be personally motivated by Grangers comments, but seeing as the two play the same position, its impossible that he wasnt at least slightly affected. The native of the Sudan actually defends Granger well, forcing him to his off hand and luring him into taking difficult, contested jumpers, while putting pressure on Indianas leading scorer on the other end of the floor with his versatility. Expect Deng, the Bulls workhorse, defensive stopper and glue guy, to have a strong series individually.

Power forward: Carlos Boozer vs. Tyler Hansbrough

Hansbrough stepped up his game since former head coach Jim OBriens firinga day after losing to the Bulls at the United Centerand played extremely well in the Pacers March win, in which Boozer didnt suit up. However, while Boozer may not be the most defensively-inclined player, his bulk, rebounding prowess and ability to draw fouls will mitigate some of his second-year counterparts strengths. Also, theres the whole Duke-North Carolina thing (Boozer went to Duke, Hansbrough is a North Carolina graduate), too, so expect Boozers college pride to kick in for some extra motivation.

Center: Joakim Noah vs. Roy Hibbert

This is perhaps the most intriguing positional matchup, as the two young pivots are two of the leagues best at their position, but bring different strengths to the table. Noah, who is still recovering from various ailments, thrives on his high activity level, rebounding, defense and running the floor, while the 7-foot-2 Hibbert uses his size, shooting tough and low-post game to be effective. If the Bulls can successfully play at a fast pace, Noahs agility should give Hibbert problems, but for that to happen, Noah must get back to his dominant ways on the boards.

Bench:

Chicago (Taj Gibson, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson, Kurt Thomas, Omer Asik) vs. Indiana (Mike Dunleavy, Josh McRoberts, Jeff Foster, Brandon Rush, A.J. Price)

Indiana actually has some solid reserves, especially in the frontcourt, but the Bulls depth and consistency should overwhelm the Pacers. More significant is whether Thibodeau decides to trim his rotation in the playoffsthe rookie Asik could be a victim, as Thomas experience and physical nature should serve the Bulls well in the postseasonbut regardless, its nice to have options. If the Bench Mob can replicate what theyve done all season, the Bulls will have a major edge.

Coach: Tom Thibodeau vs. Frank Vogel

Both coaches are in their first season at the helmVogel got the job in the middle of the campaignbut the differences in experience are huge. Although the Pacers definitely responded better to Vogel than OBrien, Thibodeaus postseason experience after 20 years as an NBA assistant have him leaps and bounds ahead of the virtual novice on the opposing sideline. Its possible that Indiana plays as if they have nothing to lose and challenges the Bulls, but Thibodeaus intensity and extensive preparation wont leave much to chance.

Prediction: Bulls, 4-0

Many observers believe the Pacers could steal a game, but the focus of this Bulls team has been incredible all season and theres no reason to expect that to change now. Rose should take his game to another level, his teammates, as usual, will follow his lead and the squads single-minded mentality will reap benefits. Barring a complete catastrophe in a single game, it should be smooth sailing for Chicago.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Slow start to fourth dooms Bulls in loss to Blazers

Slow start to fourth dooms Bulls in loss to Blazers

With his old teammate Robin Lopez in front of him and his feet at the United Center sign on the floor, Damian Lillard threw caution to the wind as he sensed the end was near.

With redemption on his mind and the Bulls on the ropes, Lillard unleashed a long triple that took the air out of the building with five minutes and pushed the Portland Trailblazers lead to 10.

The Bulls got closer but a few disastrous minutes spelled doom in their 112-110 loss Monday at the United Center, their third defeat in four games as they were without Rajon Rondo, who was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team earlier in the day.

Dwyane Wade scored 34 points with four rebounds and four assists in his return from a one-game rest while Jimmy Butler scored 26 with seven rebounds and five assists but the Bulls shot just 42 percent and committed 15 turnovers, many of them unforced against a defense that isn’t known for stopping opponents.

Lillard hit free throws in the final minute after the Bulls pulled to within three with 18.2 seconds left but his triple was a backbreaker.

It gave the visitors the push they needed after trailing to start the fourth, going on a 13-3 run while the Bulls missed 11 of their 13 shots to start the period, halting a relatively smooth offensive game to that point.

And when their offense abandoned them, they couldn’t get enough stops against a potent Trailblazers team that loves playing fast and loose. Chicago native Evan Turner hit two big baskets during the run, as he hit five of six on the night to score 11.

The Bulls harassed Lillard into one of his worst shooting nights of the season in a blowout win a few weeks ago and he made amends with a 26-point, seven-assist night

He looked to start off on the right foot from the jump, taking advantage of Jerian Grant off the dribble.

The Bulls’ defense was confused on rotations, allowing Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe to feast early on. McCollum ran around screens and read a slow-reacting Bulls defense, nailing jumpers over flat-footed defenders.

Crabbe scored 17 off the bench while McCollum hit 10 of 19 to score 24, as the Blazers hit nine triples at 39-percent accuracy.

The trio of guards combined for 45 in the first half and the Bulls needed to make an adjustment.

So Butler started the third quarter defending Lillard and it seemed to throw off the Blazers’ rhythm. The Bulls took a 67-66 lead minutes into the second half and held off the duo until McCollum’s 25-foot triple right at the end of the third.

He dropped in another two minutes into the fourth to give the Blazers a 90-89 lead.

By then, they were in a dogfight and unable to slow down the hot shooting Blazers.

Rajon Rondo used foul language with Bulls assistant coaches following loss to Mavs

Rajon Rondo used foul language with Bulls assistant coaches following loss to Mavs

The Rajon Rondo file has another suspension to the ledger, as he was suspended by the Bulls for one game for “conduct detrimental to the team” and will miss Monday night’s game against the Portland Trailblazers.

It’s the seventh incident in the past few years for Rondo where he’s been suspended by the NBA or the team he’s played for, which of course brings up queries as to the event in question.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg wouldn’t elaborate on what took place, only that he met with Rondo Sunday and that the two are on the same page. Saturday night, the Bulls lost in blowout fashion to the Dallas Mavericks, Rondo’s former team.

A source said he used some foul language to some assistant coaches, although he apologized afterwards to the team. One report said the assistant coach was Jim Boylen.

“He and I met yesterday, had a good meeting. He’ll meet us at the plane tonight,” Hoiberg said. “He’ll be back in uniform tomorrow night against Detroit and moving forward. As far as details guys, I’m not going to get in the details of it. We’re going to move past it, and again he’ll be back in uniform tomorrow.”

Hoiberg shut down every question about Rondo, only saying it wasn’t a physical altercation with any players or members of the coaching staff. With Rondo’s history of situations, Hoiberg said he understood the line of questioning but tried to walk the line of supporting the player as well.

“Sure, I understand that,” Hoiberg said. “But I’ll say this, Rajon, as we’ve all said, has been great. A great teammate. I’ve enjoyed the relationship that we developed, and again it’s not going to change moving forward.”

Rondo is averaging 8.2 points, 7.2 assists and 6.7 rebounds in 17 games, and is coming off a poor showing against Dallas, where he had five turnovers and just two points, two rebounds and two assists.

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The Bulls play the Pistons Tuesday to complete their four games in five nights stretch, and Jerian Grant will start in Rondo’s place.

“(Rondo’s) been great. I think this is just another bump in the road,” said Jimmy Butler, who also wouldn’t elaborate on what led to the suspension. “He's a phenomenal damn teammate and I back him on everything.”

When asked whether he agreed with the organizational decision to suspend Rondo, Butler said: “It's not my job to agree or disagree.”

Butler positioned himself as a big Rondo backer Monday in speaking to the media, as the two were together for an NBA Cares event with Robin Lopez.

“I don't feel his reputation fits him at all. Rondo's an incredible basketball player, friend, brother to me now, to us,” Butler said. “I think we love him here. I think the fans love him as well, the organization, I think everyone has nothing but great things to say about him. I don't see where that reputation came from at all.”

Butler wouldn’t even admit to being disappointed about the situation, choosing to stay out of the fray and not issue any controversial statements.

“Nope. Not at all. These things happen, and when things happen you handle it the way you're supposed to handle it,” Butler said. “I think we all love Rondo. I know I do. He's been a great mentor to me, he's made me a much better basketball player. We've got to go out and get one tonight.”