Not that the Bulls' first-round matchup against the Nets hasn't been entertaining thus far -- after all, the series did have what's been the most exciting game of the playoffs, last Saturday's triple-overtime classic at the United Center -- but if you haven't been paying close attention to the rest of the NBA's postseason, then you've been missing out.
[RELATED: Bulls aim to close out series in Game 6]
Only two series, Heat-Bucks and Lakers-Spurs, have been sweeps (and even those two one-sided affairs have had immediate repercussions, as Milwaukee fired Jim Boylan as interim head coach and the Lakers' seemingly endless drama continues with Dwight Howard not exactly finishing his first season in L.A. on a high note entering free agency), but the rest have been hotly-contested battles.
In addition to the Bulls attempting to close out the Nets, elimination games loom and storylines abound in the remaining opening-round pairings.
In the West, once heavily-favored Oklahoma City, sans injured All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, is trying to stave off upstart Houston; Lionel Hollins' Grizzlies, winners of three in a row, have the chance to bounce former Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro (in an identical situation to his counterpart, as neither have contracts after the season ends) and the Clippers, who are dealing with an ankle injury to All-Star power forward Blake Griffin; and Golden State, minus All-Star David Lee, can advance past deep and athletic Denver, in a series filled with plenty of acrimony.
Meanwhile, in the East, the Knicks are being pushed by the aging and ailing Celtics in a matchup that has no love lost; and in perhaps the lowest-profile first-round matchup, Atlanta hasn't rolled over, giving Indiana more of a fight than many expected.
Unfortunately, injuries have played a major role, but the NBA's second season has still been heavy on entertainment value, high tension and stellar individual and team performances, all of which will continue Thursday, starting right here in Chicago, with the Bulls' bid to advance to the second round, where they'd face rival Miami, the defending champions.
All of the above are the reasons why fans, both casual and diehard, tune in and why all of the early-morning flights, late-night hotel check-ins, back-and-forth commutes from the city to Deerfield, bad press meals and airport layovers are worth it to me and my ilk.
On to the mailbag:
Paul -- Do you foresee a situation were Rip Hamilton may be used, or is a 3-overtime DNP-CD the ultimate writing on the wall?
I wouldn’t be shocked if Rip plays in the next round, assuming the Bulls get past the Nets. However, it’s more likely that he doesn’t see any playing time moving forward. Rip is a proud veteran and Thibs understands that it’s more embarrassing to play him limited minutes than to keep him out altogether, particularly if he’s already made the decision to move forward with Marco. Kirk’s injury further solidifies things, as Marco is capable of sliding over to point guard and running the offense for stretches.
Shawns -- How much of the Bulls' success against the Nets been about Thibs out-coaching PJ?
[RELATED: Nets won't go down without a fight]
I actually think P.J. has done a good job, given his situation as an interim head coach, which is basically an audition for his next job, whether that’s the permanent gig in Brooklyn or elsewhere, maybe as an assistant again. But I do think the adjustments Thibs made from Game 1 to Game 2 were critical, though the Nets’ ineffective countering of those strategies were based more on player execution than anything wrong that P.J. did. Obviously I don’t cover the Nets, but while he seemingly has the overall respect of his players, it seems as if there are some individual agendas with that team, which can’t make it easy to coach, particularly given his status.
Anderson -- Do the Pacers or Knicks become the bigger threat to take down LeBron, or is it still Durant post-Westbrook injury?
I’d say none of the above. They’re no lock to get out if the West, but I think the Grizzlies could actually give Miami the hardest time in a series. Memphis’ size inside is problematic for the Heat’s small-ball approach and while all teams have a monumental challenge in trying to keep Miami out of transition, when they have their defense set, the Grizzlies are one of the best in the league. With two key players at point guard and center — two positions that aren’t strengths for the Heat — in Mike Conley Jr. and Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol, the bruising Zach Randolph and a pair of stellar wing defenders in Tayshaun Prince and Chicago native Tony Allen, Memphis is an intriguing opponent. However, they have their work cut out for them to not only eliminate the Clippers in their ongoing first-round series, but if they advance, a rested San Antonio team is awaiting them in the second round.
Peter -- Would the Bulls welcome back Derrick Rose at any time, or is there a point where the team and its chemistry is better without him? As Tom Thibodeau said, will he still be back whenever he's ready?
With a talent like Derrick, there’s never a time when a team says they’re better off without him, especially not one as offensively-challenged as the Bulls. I don’t see him returning in the middle of the playoffs, but they’d certainly welcome him back with him open arms if he was ready to play. As far as chemistry, because he’s familiar with Thibs’ system, has played with the team’s core group of players and has been practicing with even the newcomers for a while now, I would anticipate some rust, but I think he’d fit in relative seamlessly.
Jon -- Should the Nets have accomplished more in the regular season with a core of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez?
Probably, but they did battle injuries, as well as an early-season coaching change. This is the first year of that core truly being whole, so growing pains are to be expected. After all, not every team with a bunch of new faces can come together as quickly as the Bulls did in the 2010-11 season.