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Bulls Tue Apr 12 2011
Having locked up the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs with Friday's win in Cleveland, the Bulls headed to Orlando for a potential playoff preview Sunday against the fourth-seeded Magic.
Except it wasn't Dwight Howard and the Magic, the Brobdingnagian big man having been suspended one game for whining way too much about calls and non-calls that didn't go his way. And on the other side, Joakim Noah played only 18 minutes, sitting out most of the second half because he just hasn't been playing that well since spraining his ankle.
So we can expect the matchups will look a little different if these teams meet in the second round of the playoffs. But even in defeat, the Magic showed me enough to rethink my previous position that they'll roll over and play dead against the contenders.
Yes, clearly, Orlando is an order of magnitude below Chicago, below Miami and below Boston -- even as the Celtics look increasingly burned out, following Thursday's 16-point loss in Chicago with Sunday's season-worst, 23-point loss in Miami.
But if nothing else, the Bulls learned in Sunday's 102-99 win that they won't sally past the Magic later this month unless they're firing on all cylinders. For predictive purposes, the game was a wash; tied in the final minutes, it turned on the relative randomness of a few plays -- including a bizarre possession wherein Jason Richardson panicked and passed the ball to no one, jump-starting an easy Chicago fast break. I'm not sure something like that will happen again.
The Statistical MVP and his supporting cast can make life difficult for six games, even if neither is good enough to recapture the glory of their 2009 run to the NBA Finals. (Or more precisely, they're about as good as they were then, on balance; the competition just got way tougher.)
It's the Super Friends down in Miami that should worry the Bulls the most, as they bathe in the blood of the 2008 champions and close in on the No. 2 seed. [UPDATE: And now they've clinched it.] If they haven't yet reached a shark-like level of lethal efficiency, the Heat are at least at the level of a cave troll, misshapen and flawed but terrifyingly powerful and hard to stop.
As for Bulls fans -- a defensive bunch forever seeking out "haters" even as NBA Nation swoons over prospective MVP Derrick Rose -- the more objective among them are getting worried about LeBron and Wade. As Matt McHale of By the Horns and Basketbawful argues persuasively:
I know Chicago is a popular pick right now, and, as picks go, the Bulls are a good one. They've been a better team, play better defense, have a better bench. They bring it every night. But the playoffs usually are about the best players. The bench becomes less important. Tom Thibodeau's defense has slowed down Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James...but can it slow down LeBron and D-Wade every night in a long playoff series? Could anybody's defense?
The Bulls have had an amazing season, all things considered. I mean, 60 wins despite a combined 60 games missed by Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah? This is a detemined, dedicated group of players. Unfortunately, I think their flaws are going to be exposed in the postseason. That's what tends to happen when the schedules even out and teams can devise new schemes on a game-by-game basis. Chicago's D is fantastic but their offense relies so heavily on Derrick Rose that slowing him down becomes the key to beating the Bulls (much like slowing down James was the key to beating the Cavaliers the last few seasons). They're going to throw constant double-teams at Rose and dare Luol Deng, Boozer, Noah and, yes, Keith Bogans to beat them. I predict a Heat-Bulls Eastern Conference Finals in which the scores will be hard-on-the-eyes low and the LeBron-Wade duo will trump the Rose uno. As a Bulls blogger, this pains me.
For now, just enjoy D-Rose destroying the Celtics in slow motion: