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Bulls Fri Apr 15 2011

Bulls vs. Pacers: Prelude to a Championship?

If anybody tells you they predicted the next sentence in October, you call that person a liar.

The Chicago Bulls are the best team in the NBA this season.

bulls pacers vertical.PNGNot just easily winning the Central Division, not just overtaking the Celtics (the East beast for the past three years) and the Heat (the most talented team on paper) for the Eastern Conference title, but the best team in the entire league. They've won their past nine games and 21 of the past 23, surpassing San Antonio on the final day of the season for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

But they'll need a Finals run to take full advantage of this opportunity, and the first step comes Saturday at noon against the visiting Indiana Pacers.

Simply put, the 62-win Bulls are far and away a much better team than eighth-seeded Indiana (37-45). Sure, there are small factors that will make the going a little easier or harder, but as long as the Bulls play four solid games, they should win the series.

With that in mind, here are a few things to keep an eye on:

1. Get/stay healthy

The team is advancing the idea that Joakim Noah isn't hurt, just rusty, but watching Tuesday's win at New York, I cared less about missed putbacks than the fact that when he lightly rolled his ankle late in the game, he couldn't make it back up court on defense. He was good enough to play (and grab 10 rebounds) in Wednesday's finale against the Nets, but I have very little confidence in that ankle.

As a whole, Indiana is less skilled and forced to use physicality to slow down the Bulls. While this shouldn't be enough to take the series, it can screw up Chicago's chances in the second or third round against much better teams.

2. Keep the machine well oiled

With one or even two off days between games, NBA playoff teams can play their starters extended minutes, but Chicago will want to make sure its key bench contributors, especially Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer (if he's healthy) don't go a whole week and half without taking any pressure shots. Korver especially is streaky, and I don't want his first important shots to come against Orlando in the second round. The reserves got plenty of run in Wednesday's finale, but that's not quite the same thing.

3. Drop the hammer

Finally, I want to make a point about one important trait of this team, because it's happened several times this season and twice in the past two weeks: Too often the Bulls open up a big lead, get complacent and allow their opponent back in the game. Tuesday it was the Knicks, as the Bulls opened the second half with a 26-2 run. But just a few bad shots and poor passes later, the Knicks had gotten the score back within single digits.

But against the Suns last week, the margin got even closer. Phoenix came back from a 22-point deficit to have a chance to tie with a 3-pointer on the final possession. Chicago hung on, but it shouldn't have gotten to that point.

Yes, it's the NBA, where everybody makes a run. But this issue is especially worrisome in the playoffs, where a loss counts for so much more. You're essentially playing a few small, seven-game seasons. Losing one is like losing almost 15 percent of your regular season games, so letting a team steal even *one* game, like the Suns were an ill-advised Steve Nash pass away from doing, can cause huge problems.

But that just circles back the overall point, which is this: if the Bulls play like they're supposed to -- not even inspired basketball, just at their regular level of play -- they should get past the Pacers easily. It's just those little lapses that can lose a game before you even realize what happened, and then a team is 25 percent of the way toward winning the series.

Or maybe Indiana fans can just scare Derrick Rose by dressing up like clowns.

 
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