By John Carroll
Tom Thibodeau won the NBA’s Coach of the Year award a year ago and he deserves tremendous consideration again this year for having the Chicago Bulls back atop of the Eastern Conference. He repeated the feat of a year ago with last year’s MVP Derrick Rose out for 26 games this season, and locked down the No.1 seed and home court advantage throughout the playoffs. Howeverm with Rose out for the season after tearing his ACL, Thibodeau and his team will be tested in a much different way.,
The Bulls won 18 regular-season games with the combination of C.J. Watson and John Lucas III at point guard. But winning playoff games will be extremely different. The Bulls will miss Rose’s ability to get into the teeth of the defense and create baskets for him and others. This is what makes the Bulls special offensively and is what is needed at playoff time. Without Rose the Bulls are much more limited offensively. They must find a way to get each other easy, open looks and shoot a high percentage in order to get by Philadelphia. Although the Bulls' chances of winning this series have lessened without Rose they are still one of the most complete teams in the NBA. They have more than enough talent and depth to win in the playoffs. They have been a grind it out team since Thibodeau arrived in Chicago; they'll need to be in order to advance.
The Bulls must lean on their strengths as a team to carry them to victory in the first round -- maintaining their defensive superiority, pounding the glass at both ends, and getting tremendous contributions from their bench. Players such as Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Rip Hamilton will now be called on to do much more offensively. These three players can carry the Bulls throughout the first round if they are more aggressive and efficient. The Bulls were 32-7 with Rose in the lineup, but they are a respectable 18-6 without him.
The Bulls have less room for error but they are completely capable of winning this series. The expected starting lineup of Watson, Hamilton, Deng, Boozer, and Joakim Noah is talented enough to win this series. The road to the NBA Finals may be a lot tougher than it was before Game 2, but it is still possible.
The Philadephia 76ers' mindset doesn't change much. They know that the Bulls are the ultimate team, a team that has played and won big games without Rose. They've experienced this first-hand, by losing to the Bulls 89-80 on March 17, in which Watson scored 20 points. Their defense and rebounding should improve, though. They put incredible defensive attention on Rose and his penetration, so they can now stay home on their own men, which helps rotations and their ability to attack the glass.
• Chicago will be going up against one of the top defenses in the league. The Sixers rank second in points allowed (89.2), third in field goal percentage defense (42.5 percent) and sixth in 3-point field goal percentage defense (33.0).
• The problem for the Bulls with Rose out will not be their defense but their offense. After going 14-5 during the first 19 games that Rose was out the Bulls went 4-4 in the last eight games. In those four losses the Bulls' offense was anemic. They scored only 81.7 points per game, just under 15 points fewer than usual.
• The Bulls will be selective in their running game, even without Rose in the lineup. The Bulls averaged 13.6 points on the fast break during the regular season. They cannot expect to go up against the Sixers' half-court defense every time down the floor. Watson and Lucas must push, probe, and take advantage of situations where they have numbers and open looks early in the shot clock.
• The Bulls are a very organized and predictable offensive team. They know exactly what they are trying to do and are an excellent passing team. They are fourth in the NBA in assists with 23.0 per game.
• Watson is a capable point guard. He averaged 10.9 points and 4.6 assists per game in his 25 starts. He has a calm personality and is a good decision-maker. He needs to be a facilitator for his talented teammates, make open shots, and drive the ball into the paint and make plays when necessary.
• Lucas will be a good change of pace at point guard. He can bring them positive momentum off the bench because he is quick, aggressive and fearless. He will penetrate and give the second unit some much-needed scoring.
• The Bulls need a creator on offense. That is what Rose was. Look for the Bulls to run much more offense though Hamilton, their next best creator. Rip is an excellent passer and he will make good decisions with the ball.
• Look for the Bulls to attack Thaddeus Young in the low post if he is matched up against Taj Gibson. He does not have the strength or power to deal with Gibson in the low post and the Bulls will run direct post ups to Taj if they see that matchup with the second unit.
•The Bulls will have to rethink their late-clock and end-game situations. Normally they would let Rose go one-on-one or set a pick for him to penetrate. That may not be their best option with Watson or Lucas at the point.
• Bulls are a very organized and predictable offensive team. They know exactly what they are trying to do and are an excellent passing team. They are fourth in the NBA in assists with 23.0 per game.
• The Bulls are the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the NBA. Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik will pound the glass against the Sixers. They average 14.0 offensive rebounds per game combined.
• Tom Thibodeau has utilized his bench throughout the regular season to deal with the compressed schedule. The play of C.J. Watson and John Lucas has kept the Bulls afloat without Rose. Gibson is a starter on half of the teams in the NBA. The Chicago bench is a plus-8.3 differential compared to its opponents.
• If Rose is completely healthy they will run a number of pick-and-rolls for him and let him play off them. He is a terrific player attacking the paint. Rose is so explosive and strong that if he gets deep penetration he is unstoppable.
• The Bulls will attempt to get Carlos Boozer going early with direct post-ups and cross screens into post-ups. He is an excellent scorer off the block with an efficient jump shot. When he is engaged in the game early and has his shot going the Bulls are difficult to beat. C.J. Watson and Boozer are very efficient when they team up to run pick-and-rolls.
• The Bulls will also utilize Rip Hamilton and Kyle Korver off screens. Not only are they terrific shooters in spot-up situations but the two perimeter players are very effective running off multiple screens and creating offense for themselves. The Bulls will run their “1 set,” which is a single-double action for either Hamilton or Korver, and they are extremely effective reading the defense and coming off the screens ready to shoot. Both Hamilton and Korver combined to shoot 11-for-15 from the field for 30 points in Game 1. Look for Thibodeau to run much more screening action for both of these two terrific and efficient shooters.
• The Bulls do not run anything special for Luol Deng. Deng is the second-leading scorer on the team with 15.5 points per game due to his ability to make shots, occasionally put the ball on the floor and his ability to shoot from the 3 point line. He will get more touches in their offense though and he needs to be extremely aggressive when he does touch the ball.
• The Philadelphia offense, which has been anemic at times this season, will struggle against the No. 1 team in points allowed in the NBA (88.4) and No. 2 team in field goal percentage defense (42.3 percent).
• The Sixers do not score in the paint. They are 23rd in the NBA in paint points with 38.9. They are a jump-shooting team that works hard to get great shot selection but have a difficult time scoring because of the high volume of long jump shots.
• The Sixers like to defend, rebound and run. They are one of the elite teams in the NBA in transition. They have young, athletic legs and can finish in transition. The Sixers score 15.5 points on the fast break which ranks them 8th in the NBA.
• They like to throw the ball ahead and make early post entries and play off of them. Looking for early cuts, reversal of the ball and quick drives to the rim.
• The Sixers offense is an equal opportunity offense. They have eight players that attempt 7.1-12.2 field goal attempts per game. This is one of their main problems. They are more of a college team than an NBA team. They do not have an All-Star caliber player who can make shots in critical portions of the game and carry the Sixers in the fourth quarter.
• The Sixers do not shoot a high volume of 3-point shots in their offense (14.6 attempts per game) but they do get quality 3-point shots and make a high percentage (36.4 percent) which is eighth in the NBA.
• One indicator of the Sixers' problems offensively is their lack of free throw attempts. The Sixers are a jump-shooting team that lacks the post presence and one-on-one breakdown skills to get to the rim. They are dead last in the NBA in free throw attempts shooting only 18.2 per game.
• The Sixers do not beat themselves. They defend, take high quality shots and do not turn the ball over. They are the No. 1 team in the NBA in fewest turnovers, with 11.2 per game.
• Look for the Sixers to go at C.J. Watson early and attempt to get him in foul trouble. If they can wear him down with screens and picks he may be less effective late in the game.
• Offensively, the Sixers may attempt to post Watson and Lucas. They could attempt to run some 1-to-2 and 1-to-3 pick-and-rolls to create switches and roll them into the post in an attempt to draw fouls on them. This is something they could not do versus Rose due to his size and strength.
• The Sixers are a young team that struggles mightily in close games. Their fourth-quarter execution has been extremely poor, due to not having a go-to scorer. They are 4-10 in games decided by five points or fewer.
CJ Watson: Watson has been an extremely valuable player for the Bulls this season and has started 25 games in place of Rose. He has averaged 10.9 points and 4.1 assists per game in games that Rose did not play. Watson is more of a facilitator than Rose, because he does not have the explosive speed and power that Rose possesses. He does a very good job of getting the Bulls into their sets and getting Deng, Hamilton, and Korver open looks. Watson needs to do several things with Rose gone: defend, run the offense, have low-turnover games, make open shots, and penetrate and make good decisions when the opportunities arise. If he can do those things at a high level he will help the Bulls defeat the Sixers.
Jrue Holiday: The Sixers need consistent scoring from Holiday if they are going to have any chance in this series. He may be the most talented player on the roster and is good enough to take over games but just doesn’t. Holiday needs to step up his game in this series. He averaged 13.5 points per game and 4.5 assists during regular season.
Richard Hamilton: Hamilton has appeared in only 26 games this season, but he is playing his best basketball at the perfect time. He has been healthy the past 10 games and has been averaging 13 points per game while shooting 47 percent. Hamilton has developed into a viable scoring option for the Bulls. They will use him in catch-and-shoot plays coming off screens and as a spot-up shooter. The Bulls acquired Hamilton to make shots in the playoffs and take some pressure off of Rose.
Jodie Meeks: Although Meeks starts for the Sixers, he is truly only a role player. He is not as talented as Lou Williams and Evan Turner who come off the bench. Doug Collins utilizes Meeks as someone who spaces the floor and creates opportunities for Holiday, Andre Igoudala and Elton Brand because of his ability to shoot from deep range. He is shooting 36.5 percent from the 3-point line this season but has struggled late in the season, shooting only 28.6 percent in the last five games.
Luol Deng: Deng comes into this series having had a very solid year. He scored 15.3 points per game and averaged 6.5 rebounds per game. Even though he has struggled with a wrist injury all season, his scoring and rebounding numbers are near his career averages. Chicago needs Deng to establish himself as a secondary scoring option early in this series. He will have to try to shut down Igoudala on the defensive end using his athleticism and length. Look for Deng to take advantage of his size as he loves to rise up and shoot over smaller defenders.
Andre Igoudala: Igoudala made the All-Star team but he is having a career-low output scoring only 12.4 points per game. He is a terrific defender, has tremendous athleticism and can finish at the rim. He does a little of everything: scoring, rebounding and dishing out assists, but his team truly needs more from a player who makes $13.5 million. His 3-point shooting numbers are up this season to 39.4 percent from his career average of 33.1 percent
Carlos Boozer: The injury-prone Boozer was a mainstay in the Bulls' starting lineup this year, not missing a single game. He comes into the playoffs playing at a very high level, putting up double-doubles in five of the past six games. Look for the Bulls to feed Boozer early with deep touches in this series to establish a post presence. Boozer is the Bulls' second-leading rebounder at 8.5 rebounds per game, but they need him to be a more consistent defensive player throughout the playoffs.
Elton Brand: Brand led the Sixers in scoring and rebounding a year ago, but this has been a tough year for him. He attempts to overpower power forwards and centers but due to wear and tear to his body he can no longer do it. He does bring toughness to the Sixers' frontcourt and Doug Collins has attempted to manage his minutes to keep him healthy. Brand has a high basketball IQ and utilized it to score 11.0 points and grab 7.2 rebounds per game this season. It is extremely important for him to neutralize Boozer in the post.
Joakim Noah: Noah has quietly developed into one the NBA’s top centers. He plays with incredible energy and enthusiasm. He averaged just shy of a double-double this past year with 10.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. Stats do not do justice to the impact Noah has on the court for the Bulls. He is one of the NBA’s best help defenders and plays with a reckless abandon. Noah is tremendously active on the offensive glass, averaging 3.8 offensive boards per game.
Lavoy Allen: Collins inserted Allen into the starting lineup rather than going with Spencer Hawes because he believes he helps the Sixers match up better with the likes of Noah and Boozer. He is a strong banger who can defend the low post and rebound. Allen scored four points and collected six rebounds in Game 1. Lavoy did not get rattled in the first game of the series and Collins will stay with him in Game 2.
John Lucas III: Lucas has been a pleasant surprise for the Bulls this year. He has averaged career high minutes with 14.0 per game and points at 7.5 per game. He will be called on to play with the second unit with the loss of Rose. Lucas is quick, can penetrate and he can score. He has an attack mentality that helps him score in bunches in limited minutes. His play in this series is critical to the Bulls' success because Lucas has been there to help the Bulls in games where Watson has struggled throughout the regular season. He and Watson may be the biggest keys to this series with the loss of Rose.
Kyle Korver: Korver could be the wildcard for the Chicago Bulls throughout the playoffs. When he is making shots he can be a key contributor for the Bulls but not if his minutes have to be limited. Korver gets most of his looks in catch-and-shoot situations, spacing the floor or running off screens and pulling a quick 3-point shot. He shot 43.0 percent from 3-point line this season. Korver may struggle to defend more athletic wings but his ability to space the court helps immensely.
Taj Gibson: Gibson is a terrific role player who plays with tremendous energy. He would start on more than half of the NBA teams. Gibson is a terrific interior defender who coach Tom Thibodeau relies on especially late in games. Gibson is a relentless rebounder averaging 5.3 per game and 2.2 on the offensive glass.
Ronnie Brewer: Brewer will be used off the bench for defense and energy. He has tremendous length and can guard multiple positions. He causes problems for the Bulls offensively because of his lack of a perimeter shot. Teams sag off of him because he only shot 27.0 percent from the 3-point line and with him on the floor has less room to operate.
Omer Asik: Asik is a quiet contributor for the Bulls. He is a high-volume rebounder, grabbing 5.3 rebounds while only averaging 14.0 minutes per game. He utilizes his size and basketball IQ and is a solid interior defender who has averaged 1.0 blocks per game this season.
Lou Williams: Lou Williams is a big-time scorer and he produces. He may be a one-dimensional player but the fact that the Sixers' leading scorer (14.9 points per game) comes off the bench says all you need to know about the Sixers' offense. He is not a superstar but he is a productive perimeter player and should probably be a starter for this team. This team needs him on the court and in the game against one of the best defenses in the NBA.
Thaddeus Young: Young has had a pretty consistent year for the Sixers. He is a gifted athlete with tremendous bounce. He needs to continue to develop his skill set to be the best player he can be. He appears to have leveled off this season. It is obvious he has gotten worn down going up against bigger, stronger opponents this season.
Evan Turner: Turner may be the second-most talented player on the Sixers roster. He would be a starter on numerous NBA teams. He is at his best when he has the ball in his hands, scoring and doling out assists. He is an excellent rebounder who will be called on to help his frontcourt in this series against the relentless attack of the Chicago big men. Turner has improved his game this season. He has tremendous size and playmaking abilities. He could be a surprise player in this series. Philly needs to play the guys that can make plays and Turner can do that.
Spencer Hawes: Because of a strained Achilles, Hawes has missed major time this season. Earlier in the year, he was able to get Doug Collins 10 points and 10 rebounds but that production has been curtailed. He has not been able to log heavy minutes and his injuries have stunted his progress with the Sixers. The Sixers need Hawes to play well in this series to combat the frontline of Noah and Asik. The Bulls are the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the NBA and the Sixers need Hawes' size and rebounding to stay with the Bulls.
Nikola Vucevic: Vucevic was able to help the Sixers early in the season, but struggled as the season progressed. Recently, he has been inserted into the starting lineup for Hawes. He has started 15 of his 51 games he has played in this season. Vucevic has averaged 13.4 minutes, 4.6 points and shot 38.3 percent in the 11 games he has played in April. The Sixers could use him in this series due to the productivity of the Chicago big men.
Prediction: Bulls in six