The Bulls open their 2014 postseason run tonight against the Wizards on Comcast SportsNet, the only place where you can get the hometown call with Neil Funk and Stacey King. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live, where Mark Schanowski and Will Perdue get you ready with in-depth analysis, keys to the game and predictions. And stay with us after the game for Bulls Postgame Live, where Mark and Will break down the matchup, provide highlights and reaction from Tom Thibodeau and the rest of the Bulls. It's all happening tonight on Comcast SportsNet.
A seven-game series in the NBA playoffs is a marathon, not a sprint, and during each matchup both teams are forced to make adjustments based on pace, personnel, injuries and officiating. Rotations shorten, possessions become even more crucial and there's no such thing as taking a quarter off, coasting into halftime or not making the extra pass. Everything is amplified, the pressure rises and the two teams, specifically the respective head coaches, engage in a chess match that, thanks to the NBA's scheduling, can last up to nearly two weeks.
But when the Bulls and Wizards take to the United Center floor tonight on Comcast SportsNet, don't expect too much tinkering on Washington's side from what it was in the regular season. At least not yet.
"I think you have to play the first game first," said veteran Al Harrington, who has played in 48 playoff games over six different seasons and three teams, "and then after that you start playing chess."
At its core, the Wizards' game plan will mirror what the Bulls want to do. Randy Wittman's group allowed 99.4 points per game (9th in NBA) and was ranked 10th in efficiency, locking down defensively behind the superb play of All-Star point guard John Wall (1.8 steals per game) and newcomer Marcin Gortat (9.5 rebounds, 1.5 blocks). Along with second year pro Bradley Beal and a healthy Nene at power forward -- combined with the sharpshooting tandem of Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza on the wing -- the Wizards are built well at each position and could prove difficult to defend when they have the ball.
But one of the biggest questions in the series is how the Wizards will defend the Bulls' athletic front court, led by Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson. Nene is still in the process of acclimating back into the Wizards lineup, a spot which Trevor Booker and Drew Gooden filled in while Nene was out with a knee injury. Nene will start at power forward, but Wittman will need to mix-and-match his big men to stay fresh against a talented Bulls frontcourt.
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And while at some point in the series that may mean Wittman deciding to alter his lineup and/or rotation, Game 1 is a chance for the Wizards to prove their style and game plan will work. Nene played in the two games this seasons in which the Wizards beat the Bulls, while he was out for last month's drubbing in the nation's capital, a 96-78 Bulls victory.
"We know what we have to do to play, and we've been successful doing it," Wittman said. "(Thibodeau) isn't all the sudden going to start (reserve center Nazr) Mohammed. We're going to play how we play, and then you make adjustments from that. You don't go into a game and say we need to make this adjustment right away. We go out there with what we do best, and then if we need to make adjustments after that depending on how things go that's when you make adjustments."
The Bulls, owners of the NBA's best record since the All-Star break, are considered favorites in the series. The No. 4 seed has homecourt advantage as well as the playoff experience, having been to the postseason each of the last five seasons (the Wizards, on the other hand, haven't been to the playoff since the Gilbert Arenas days in 2008). But the Wizards and their veterans understand such is life in the playoffs, where there aren't any easy outs or free passes. In that sense, they're happy to be playing one of the East's best teams so early in the playoffs because of what a series win would mean.
"You have to see anybody, whether it's first round, second round or in the conference finals," reserve forward Drew Gooden said. "You're going to see an opponent whether it's now or later, so I like the 'now situation' of getting (talented) opponents out of the way early."
Winners of four straight, the Wizards are confident entering Chicago. They hold regular season wins over Miami (twice), Brooklyn (twice) and the Bulls (twice), arguably the three biggest contenders in the Eastern Conference. Because of that, as well as star power and a solid bench, the 4-5 matchup in the East should be a back-and-forth battle that comes down to style of play and adjustments, even if there isn't much seen tonight on CSN.
"This is a great opportunity for us. We feel like we can make some special things happen this year," Harrington said. "I think we proved it all year, that we can play at an elite level when we're right."
All the action is happening on Comcast SportsNet. Tom Thibodeau's group has battled injury, trades and other adversity yet has still managed to put themselves in a position to win. They'll need 16 wins to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy, and it begins tonight. Tune in, and make sure to stay interactive throughout the evening by checking out Bulls Pulse, and use #BullsTalk on Twitter to join the conversation with other die-hards.