Wild playoff weekend just the tip of the iceberg


Wild playoff weekend just the tip of the iceberg

Monday, April 25, 2011Posted: 6:01 p.m.

By Aggrey Sam

The top-seeded Bulls narrow loss Saturday was an omen. Just like the opening weekend of the NBA playoffs, the tight finish in Game 4 of the Chicago-Indiana series was a harbinger for postseason slate full of upsets and close calls over Easter weekend.

Following the Pacers surprising win was an exhilarating ending in Portland, in which Trail Blazers guard Brandon Royafter sinking to the verge of tears previously in the seriesscored 18 fourth-quarter points to bring his team back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit to tie the series at two games apiece. For Rou, the performance was doubly sweet, as the former All-Star struggled in his new reserve role this season in the aftermath of having surgery on both knees.

The next game was equally dramatic, as the Grizzlies managed to hold off the Spurs for the franchises first home win in its history. An improbable Zach Randolph three-pointer sealed the triumph for Memphis, which now leads No. 1 seed San Antonio in the series, 2-1.

Saturdays final matchup featured Oklahoma City and Denver, a game that featured several runs by each potent offensive team. After the Nuggets stormed back at the end of the third quarter to make the game close, the Thunderled by All-Star duo Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but also receiving a breakout outing from fellow youngster Serge Ibakaseemed to have the game in hand, but had to stave off a near-miraculous late individual spurt from J.R. Smith (who missed a contested potentially game-tying shot from long range) to take a 3-0 lead in the series.

Not to be outdone, Sunday was just as loaded with thrilling matchups, starting with an afternoon matinee close-out game between Philadelphia and Miami. Instead of eliminating the young 76ers, the Heat got off to a slow start and though they made one of their patented dominant runs to get back into the contest, the always-exuberant coaching of Doug Collins and clutch play of youthful trio Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner and Lou Williams (who hit the eventual game-winner)combined with LeBron James failing on yet another opportunity to be the heroprevented the sweep.

Perhaps the least-unpredictable game was in the matchup observers were most intrigued by heading into the postseason, Boston and New York. Behind Rajon Rondos 21-point, 12-assist afternoon (coming off the heels of his Game 3 triple-double, which included 20 assists), the Celtics cruised to the win at Madison Square Gardenensuring a 7:00 p.m. local start time for Tuesdays Bulls-Pacers Game 5 at the United Centersweeping the new-look, injury-riddled Knicks, despite 32 points from Carmelo Anthony.

Atlanta continued to surprise its doubters in the following contest, holding off Orlando behind yet another big game from sixth-man extraordinaire Jamal Crawford, as well as a solid outing from fellow former Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich. With its strategy of bodying up Dwight Howard one-on-oneliterally, as the one-game suspension of Hawks center Zaza Pachulia for head-butting Magic swingman Jason Richardson, who also sat out Sundays game for slapping the backup big manthe Hawks lived with Howards inside dominance and again concentrated on shutting down Orlandos perimeter shooters.

The weekends final game, however, might have been the biggest shocker, as New Orleans repeated its Game 1 upset of the defending champions, taking down the Lakers on its home court to even the series at 2-2. Chris Paul appears to be back to his pre-injury form, posting a triple-double27 points, 13 rebounds and 15 assists; superstar counterpart Kobe Bryant was held scoreless in the first half, but a bigger issue might be his ankle and foot injuriesand despite not having power forward David West, the Hornets are surviving against the Lakers behemoth frontline, with All-Star Pau Gasol close to invisible for much of the series.

When the dust settled, the top two seeds in each conference fell (with the West's No. 1 team, San Antonio, actually trailing against an eighth seed) and outside of two teams--Boston, which advanced to the second round, and Oklahoma City, which still hasn't lost--no team has proved invulnerable. Who knows whats in store this week with the playoffs, but its clear that thus far its shaping up to be one of the most exciting postseasons in years.

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.

Preview: Bulls take on Hawks in preseason tilt on CSN

Preview: Bulls take on Hawks in preseason tilt on CSN

The Bulls battle the Hawks on Thursday night in a preseason game in Omaha, Neb. Catch all the action on CSN, with coverage starting at 7 p.m. Former Creighton Bluejays Doug McDermott (Bulls) and Kyle Korver (Hawks) are expected to play considerable minutes in front of their former fans.

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Tough rotation choices facing Fred Hoiberg as Bulls' opener approaches

Tough rotation choices facing Fred Hoiberg as Bulls' opener approaches

With opening night against the Celtics coming soon, Fred Hoiberg and his staff are dealing with some difficult choices in forming a consistent rotation for the opening weeks of the season.

Injuries are one factor complicating the situation, with top draft pick Denzel Valentine sidelined since the first preseason game because of a sprained ankle and Nikola Mirotic tweaking his back against the Hornets on Monday night.

And then there’s the trade the Bulls completed Monday that brought in former NBA Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams from Milwaukee in exchange for forgotten reserve Tony Snell. There’s no question Carter-Williams brings a much-needed dimension with his ability to provide quality defense at the 1, 2 and 3 positions. The Bulls were hoping Snell could be the guy to provide perimeter defense when Jimmy Butler is on the bench, but Snell wasn’t able to handle the physical nature of the NBA game. It was curious to hear Bucks coach Jason Kidd immediately anoint Snell as the likely starter at shooting guard in Milwaukee, but as Carter-Williams found out, Kidd has been known to sour on players very quickly.

After missing almost all of training camp, it will be interesting to see how quickly Carter-Williams takes on a major role with the Bulls. The minutes MCW plays will likely keep Valentine on the bench, and the Bulls were extremely high on the former Michigan State star, both at the draft and heading into camp. Both players are about the same size with the ability to play multiple positions. Valentine is clearly the better shooter, with Carter-Williams the better defender.

So, how will Hoiberg use the two lanky swingmen, and what will that mean for the playing prospects of backup guards Isaiah Canaan, Jerian Grant and Spencer Dinwiddie?

My prediction early on is Carter-Williams will get the first crack at the backup point guard spot behind Rajon Rondo, using his 6-foot-6 length to direct the offense and get the ball to shooters like Mirotic and Doug McDermott, with either Butler or Dwyane Wade in the lineup as a second facilitator. Valentine will probably get limited minutes early as the backup shooting guard, with Canaan also used in that role if the Bulls are looking to come from behind with his quick-strike 3-point shooting ability.

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The obvious losers in the MCW trade are Grant and Dinwiddie. The Bulls were pretty excited about acquiring Grant in the Derrick Rose trade with the Knicks since they had a lot of interest in the former Notre Dame lead guard going into the 2015 draft. Grant has played well at times during the preseason but doesn’t have the play-making ability or long-range shooting skills of some of the other candidates for backup guard minutes. It’s a similar story for Dinwiddie, who shined in some of the early preseason games with Valentine out but could be in danger of losing his roster spot after the acquisition of Carter-Williams.

The other major rotation issue for Hoiberg and his staff involves how to get playing time for young bigs Bobby Portis and Cristiano Felicio. Portis has the higher pedigree as a 2015 first-round draft pick and former Southeastern Conference Player of the Year at Arkansas. He’s also a solid threat from the 3-point line and is capable of scoring points in bunches.

Felicio is a more explosive athlete than Portis and seems a lot more comfortable playing the backup center position behind Robin Lopez. The native Brazilian is quick off his feet and seems to give the team a lift whenever he takes the court, either with a put-back slam or blocked shot. The question for Hoiberg is: How do you find playing time for Lopez, Taj Gibson, Mirotic, Portis and Felicio at the center and power forward spots? Clearly one of those players will be left out, which means either Portis or Felicio could wind up heading to Hoffman Estates to log some minutes with the D-League Windy City Bulls.

If Hoiberg goes with a full 10-player rotation to start the season, it should look something like this: Butler, Wade, Rondo, Lopez and Gibson start the game, with McDermott and MCW likely the first players off the bench. Mirotic, Felicio and either Valentine or Canaan will round out the second unit.

Quality depth is always a good thing in professional sports, and John Paxson and Gar Forman have done an excellent job of giving the coaching staff a variety of options to attack opposing teams. But developing a consistent rotation, where all the players know their roles can be just as important, and that will be a storyline to watch throughout the season.

For more on Carter-Williams and the Bulls’ rotation issues, check out our latest Bulls Talk Podcast. Kendall Gill and Vincent Goodwill join me for some spirited NBA conversation.