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What up, Bulls Nation. Everybody hanging in there? Good. Me neither. Let’s all take a quick second to remind ourselves that worrying about clinching a playoff spot and playoff seeding is a much better position to be in as we cross from March to April. As opposed to, you know, what it had been for the past five years.
OK. Moment of perspective acknowledged.
The Bulls have just five regular-season games remaining and the Eastern Conference playoff picture features two epic races for seeds 1-4 and 5-10. The Bulls sit in the middle of it all, currently the fifth seed. They own tiebreakers over Toronto and Cleveland. The Bulls win over the Clippers [read Will Gottlieb’s thoughts on that], plus the Cavs losses on Wednesday and Thursday, kept them in a good spot to avoid the play-in tournament.
Let’s assume [just humor me, I know the doubters are out there, I might be one of them] that the Bulls win a game or two in their final five, and clinch at least the sixth seed. The difference between fifth and sixth doesn’t really matter at this point. You’re not getting homecourt advantage, and no one knows how the top four seeds will shake out. That means the Bulls will end up in the No. 4 vs No. 5 matchup, or the No. 3 vs No. 6 matchup.
Either way, their first-round opponent has been narrowed down to four teams, those being the four teams at the top: Miami, Milwaukee, Boston and Philadelphia. The Heat currently hold the top seed after a big road win in Boston on Wednesday night. The Bucks are in second and the Celtics a half-game ahead of the 76ers for third.
But again, all of this can change over the final 10 days of the season.
The big question on everyone’s mind: Which matchup do the Bulls want to avoid, and which matchup gives them their best shot at a first-round upset? Any matchup they draw will be a challenge, and the Bulls will certainly be underdogs needing to play at their absolute peak to advance.
But let’s do the exercise for the fun of it. Here’s my ranking of the teams I’d like to see the Bulls draw in the first round, starting from “Dear sweet baby Jesus please no” to “They might have a shot.”
It’s the Pecking Order.
A quick note: I don’t see the margins between these matchup preferences being all that wide. Unlike the Suns out West, there isn’t a team in the East that’s asserted itself as the unquestionable top force separated from the rest of the pack.
Another quick note: (parenthesis show the Bulls record against each opponent this season, and the average point differential in those games)
4. Philadelphia 76ers (0-4, Bulls -10)
I really, really want to believe in “James Harden, Playoff Choke Artist” so much to say the Bulls would have a shot in this series. I’ve always faded Harden — whatever team he’s on — come playoff time. Because he always shrinks in those moments. It’s who he’s proven himself to be, time and again, to this point in his career. And after his initial burst following the trade from Brooklyn, Harden has looked way more like his aging, average self than the superstar MVP version.
Even factoring in a potential Harden choke game, I can’t overlook the obvious. His name is Joel Embiid. [His name was Robert Paulson.] He’s vying with Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo for the league MVP, and he hasn’t lost to the Bulls in his NBA career. Not once. The man is 11-0 against the Bulls. Every streak comes to an end sometime. Maybe it would even end with the Bulls stealing a game of this series. But four wins against Embiid? I just don’t see it. He’s a matchup nightmare for the Bulls, and he has the mental edge of knowing he owns them.
I also want absolutely nothing to do with a best-of-seven Tyrese Maxey. Or Matisse Thybulle. Those guys are awesome stories this season, but they terrify me. No thank you.
3. Boston Celtics (1-1, Bulls +6)
The Bulls still see the Celtics again on April 6. They beat them in epic fashion back in early November [the Ayo coming out party!] with an awe-inspiring 39-11 fourth-quarter clinic. They then pushed the Celtics to the brink and lost by two in a January meeting. Both of those games happened in Boston.
I know what you’re thinking: “Shouldn’t this be the team the Bulls want to see in a first-round series? They’re the only top team in either conference they’ve managed to beat this season!”
I’d answer you thusly: Have you watched the Boston Celtics lately? On January 6, the Celtics were 18-21. Since then, they’re 29-9. And they aren’t just winning, they are blowing teams out. Their elite defense (allowing a league-best 104.0 points per game since the All Star break) combined with the reemergence of Jayson “Are You Kidding Me” Tatum and Marcus Smart adapting to point guard duties has the Celtics rolling. They’re dominating games in this recent stretch in statistical ways we haven’t seen since the 72-10 Bulls. [*pours one out]
The Celtics don’t have a dominant big man like Embiid or Giannis [he’s coming up next]. They’ll be without Robert Williams, whose meniscus injury will have him sidelined through at least the first round of the playoffs. That’s a big loss, as his play at the center position has been a huge reason for the Celtics’ recent dominant stretch.
But I still fear this team greatly, as should all Bulls fans. They’re coming into the playoffs red hot, while the Bulls are sputtering to the finish line. Danger. Doom.
2. Milwaukee Bucks (0-3, Bulls -12.7)
The Bulls also play the Bucks again, on April 5. The last meeting between these teams [you know, the one that brought out Hulk Matt] got ugly. But the Bulls only lost the first two meetings by a combined 10 points.
It’s hard to get a read on this matchup considering the absences. The Bulls started Tyler Cook in the first game. Matt Thomas, bless his heart, played 19 minutes off the bench. No Zach LaVine, no Lonzo Ball, no Javonte Green. The Bucks had their full arsenal minus Brook Lopez, and the Bulls nearly won. Both teams had mostly healthy squads in the second battle [no Alex Caruso, grrrrr], Billy Donovan tried the Tristan-Vooch starting together idea [bad] and the Bulls lost by six. Then in the third meeting the Bulls were mostly healthy, the Bucks were without Khris Middleton and blow the Bulls off the floor.
…See what I mean?
There’s no stopping Giannis, and Jrue Holiday has absolutely shredded the Bulls this season. But I can’t shake the feeling from those first two games. The Bulls can play with the Bucks, maybe even beat them. They’ll have to play at their highest level. No checking out mentally for entire quarters. Cut down the defensive lapses and unforced turnovers. And DeMar DeRozan will have to more closely resemble the 35 points on 50% shooting version of himself than the one that looks human lately. [How ’bout dem 50 points against the Clips? My lord, DeMar. I love you.]
But if the Bucks shooters go cold, and DeMar’s MVP-caliber play can come close to canceling out Giannis, the Bulls just might have a shot.
As an added bonus to this hypothetical matchup, I’d get to spend at least four games rooting for somebody to foul the ever-loving sh*t out of Grayson Allen. [Hi angry Bucks fans creepily stalking all of my tweets!]
1. Miami Heat (0-3, Bulls -14)
The Bulls also see the Heat again, on Saturday. If it’s tough to gauge how the Bulls match up with the Bucks, trying to do so with the Heat is even harder. With both squads fully healthy [minus Patrick Williams] the Heat edged the Bulls 107-104 back in November. The Heat destroyed the Bulls in December during the Omicron wave. The Bulls were missing DeMar, while Troy Brown Jr started and Alfonzo McKinnie played 29 minutes off the bench. Devon Dotson had the second most bench minutes with 15. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo were out for Miami. The Heat beat the Bulls 112-99 at the end of February in a game where Billy might as well have played all his starters 48 minutes. The Bulls bench got absolutely crushed by Miami’s reserves 49-23.
The Bulls bench should theoretically be deeper now, with the returns of Williams and Caruso. [Speaking of P-Dub, read this great back and forth column by Will and Mark K about the balance of power forward minutes for the remainder of the season.] Who knows, maybe Lonzo even gets cleared to play before the playoffs start? Either way, I like this matchup best for two reasons:
One: Miami is reeling a bit. They’ve righted the ship somewhat with wins over Sacramento and Boston, but that four-game skid of theirs looked ominous. Jimmy is fighting with Spo [I wonder what the over/under was on the number of months until Jimmy blew up another locker room]. Their offense ranks 26th in the NBA over the past 15 games. Sure, their defense is elite – ranked 4th over the same span – but good offense beats good defense in the playoffs. [Pause to acknowledge how bad the Bulls offense has been lately. Check.] The Heat’s half-court offense is particularly atrocious, and that matters more in the playoffs.
Which leads me to reason Two: In any playoff series, give me the team with the best player. Sure, there are exceptions to that rule [Jerry West winning Finals MVP for the losing Lakers, MJ’s early playoff losses and LeBron’s in Cleveland] but usually the team with the best player wins a best-of-seven series. Which team has the guy to make the most plays in crunch time? The stones to show up when it counts?
If he even slightly revitalizes himself for the playoff push, give me DeMar over Jimmy. Chips are down, game on the line, DeMar “King in the Fourth” DeRozan has proved time and again this season to be that guy. Sure, Jimmy had that monster game in the Bubble Finals, and people have dogged DeMar for years for not being that guy for Toronto in the playoffs. But DeMar is more clutch than Jimmy this season. Heck, if you go by “clutch-time” scoring [5-point margin under 5 minutes to play], he’s been more clutch than every player in the NBA. As of his monster game on Thursday, DeMar leads all NBA scorers with 157 clutch points this season.
I’ve been wanting another shot at Miami in the playoffs since 2013. It’s a completely different team now, but it’s still Pat Riley. And facing our old pal Jimmy would definitely add an epic chapter to the long and storied Bulls-Heat rivalry.
The Bulls would still be underdogs, no doubt about it. But I think this draw would give them their best chance at an upset.
Let’s do it. I’m ready.
See Red. Be Good.
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