Frontcourts take center stage as Bulls face Nets

Frontcourts take center stage as Bulls face Nets
April 20, 2013, 10:15 am
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Mark Strotman

In last year’s NBA Playoffs, it took the Chicago Bulls six days and two debilitating injuries to go from being the favorites in the Eastern Conference to underdogs against a Philadelphia 76ers team that finished 15 games behind them in the regular season.

The Bulls were well on their way to a Game 1 victory when Derrick Rose landed awkwardly on his left knee, resulting in a torn ACL. In Game 3 in Philadelphia, center Joakim Noah suffered a sprained ankle in the second half, allowing the Sixers to outscore the Bulls 28-14 in the final stanza and take a 2-1 lead in the series.

Those two injuries — which shut both down for the remainder of the series — were crucial factors in the No. 8 seed 76ers downing the injury-riddled Bulls in six games. And unfortunately for Tom Thibodeau’s group in 2013 — a team that went 45-37 in the regular season to earn the No. 5 seed — they may be without those two players again tonight when they travel to Brooklyn to take on the Nets.

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The Derrick Rose saga has been front-page news all year, but with the former MVP failing to see any live action in the regular season it seems unlikely — though not a guarantee — that coach Tom Thibodeau will run him out for the first time in the playoffs. Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson — both offseason free-agent acquisitions — have filled in nicely for Rose, who remains day-to-day and will only play when he feels “110 percent.”

And while the Bulls would love to have their leader back in the lineup, 82 games without him makes it a far different scenario than when he crumbled to the United Center floor holding his knee almost one year ago. The bigger loss — as it stands for the Bulls rotation and their opponent — is Noah, who suffered a setback in his recovery from plantar fasciitis in his left foot. He may play in Game 1--though if he did it would be in limited minutes--and could miss more time than that, depending on how rest affects the nagging injury.

Noah, in the midst of a career year, missed 16 games this season, including 12 of the Bulls’ final 15 contests of the season. And while he played just 21, 14 and 14 minutes in each of the three games, respectively, he said he wishes he had played it as safe as possible and sat out the entire stretch.

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The Bulls are 9-7 without Noah this season, a slightly better win percentage than their 36-30 record with him, but those numbers mean little when considering a seven-game playoff series. The Bulls want and need their emotional leader back, but will have to make do without him for now.

Without Noah at full-speed — he missed two of the Bulls’ four games against the Nets this season — the Chicago frontcourt will rely heavily on Carlos Boozer. In the 12 games Noah missed in the last two months of the season, Boozer averaged 18.4 points and 12.8 rebounds.

Boozer has picked up the slack in Noah’s absence, but the rejuvenated Nazr Mohammed is the one filling his role in the middle for the Bulls’ defense. In those same 12 games Noah missed in March and April, Mohammed played in 11, and excluding his 7-minute stint in Miami last week, he has averaged 6.6 points and 8.5 rebounds in 10 games in the starting lineup.

The pair — plus reserve Taj Gibson, working his way back from a knee sprain that cost him seven games in April — will be the key to the series against a Brooklyn frontcourt touting two of the more efficient post players in the playoffs.

Fifth-year pro Brook Lopez enjoyed his most efficient season this year, averaging 19.4 points on 52 percent shooting, 6.9 rebounds and a career-best 2.1 blocks in 30.4 minutes per game. In the two games Noah missed against the Nets, Lopez averaged 24.0 points on 54 percent shooting and went to free-throw line 14 times. Mohammed had trouble extending out to 17 feet to guard Lopez, and it’s an area the Bulls must address to keep the 7-footer in check.

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The Bulls were 10th in rebounding margin this year, third in the East to the Pacers and Nets. And while Lopez has never been known as a dominant force on the glass, without Noah the Bulls will square off against perhaps the best pure rebounder in the NBA, power forward Reggie Evans.

In just 24.6 minutes per game, the 10-year pro was sixth in the NBA in rebounds per game (11.1). You have to go all the way down to DeAndre Jordan (31st; 7.2 rebounds per game) to find someone who averaged fewer minutes per game than Evans. He’s a volume rebounder and, while he averages just 4.5 points per game, he can swing the momentum of a game with timely offensive rebounds and crucial defensive boards.

Without a healthy Noah the Bulls frontcourt is entirely different, meaning Boozer, Mohammed and Gibson must increase their productivity against the core of Lopez and Evans (reserves Andray Blatche and Gerald Wallace help, too).

You can catch all the playoff action tonight on Comcast SportsNet, beginning with the Inside Look with Carlos Boozer at 5 p.m., followed by Chicago Bulls Playoff Preview and Bulls Pregame Live with Mark Schanowski and Sidney Green. You can get interactive all night with Bulls Pulse by using #BullsTalk on Twitter.