It is no secret that the Eastern Conference has been terrible for the majority of the season. Sure, the Pacers and Heat have both had runs. Even the Wizards, Nets and Bobcats have had their moments. Truth of the matter is that compared to the West, the East seems more like a minor league. Having said that, the Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors are two teams who have surpassed expectations as far as the final half of the season goes in the NBA; as a result, there has been a playoff positioning war for third between the two teams, which will finally be decided tonight in a race that has gone to the wire.
For the Bulls to win this spot, they need luck. Chicago need the Raptors to lose since Toronto holds the tiebreaker, so the only way the sole Canadian team loses the third spot is if they lose their game tonight. Regardless of what happens though, there are advantages and disadvantages to making it to that third spot for both teams.
Many predicted the Bulls to do well this year with their MVP Derrick Rose back. Of course that prediction went off the rails when Rose injured himself for the season early on. When this happened, the Bulls looked lost as they soon went into a downswing where they switched off from a plus .500 team to a sub .500 team. They appeared directionless and destined to miss the playoffs despite making some noise the previous season without Rose.
However, something happened when the Bulls dispatched Luol Deng. They started to win, which led to a record of 22-8 since the All-Star game. Once again, in large part to the supernatural play of Joakim Noah, the Bulls appear to be the team in the East no one wants to play. However, the question is what is their gain in taking the third playoff spot in the East?
If the Bulls slip into third, they will be fortunate to play the mediocre Washington Wizards. While the Wizards have surged the last 10 games, they have not had the most competition with wins against the Knicks, Magic, Bucks, Celtics, Hawks, a slumping Pacers team and a Heat team without Lebron James. As for their losses, one of the three came against the Bulls in which they were decimated 96-78. The other thing with the Bulls is that they have one of the better benches in the league, whereas the Wizards do not.
From there though if the Bulls make it to the second round, they will play their nemesis the Heat. While Miami have beaten Chicago two out of three games this season, both of those games were early in the season before the Bulls found their stride. In the past of course, the Bulls have given the Heat problems through the years with their size, defensive prowess and tenacity. Additionally, the Heat have not had a great end to the season where they are 5-5 and struggling.
Speaking of struggling though, if the Bulls instead drop down to fourth, they will most likely play a plummeting Pacers team in the second round. This would help their chances to an easier path to the conference finals. Of course if it goes that way, the Bulls will play the Nets, who while they have put together a good second half of the season, have also faltered as of late.
As far as the Bulls playoff picture is concerned it comes down to when they will play the Heat. It may prove better to face the Heat in the second round with an easier conference finals against the Pacers or Raptors. Then again, if they wait to play the Heat in the conference finals, one of the older teams in the NBA might be too worn out for a motivated Bulls team.
Either way, the Bulls are not a team anyone wants to play in the playoffs. This NBA playoff positioning is vital, and for the Chicago Bulls to win this final game of the regular season and get ahead of the Toronto Raptors, could be the difference between who goes to the conference, if not finals after this wire race.
The Toronto Raptors are not so different than the Chicago Bulls this season. While the Raptors were not expected to be much of a force this season, which they showed early on in the season when they were a sub .500 team the first nine weeks of the season, they have made a turnaround.
Much like the Bulls, they started to surge once they made a major trade. In this case, they traded the inconsistent Rudy Gay to the Kings in a seven-player deal. Ironically, the players the Raptors got in exchange were mediocre to subpar players, yet after the trade the Raptors managed an initial 12-5 record. Also like the Bulls, the Raptors managed to get above .500 for the first time in January at 18-17 and never looked back with a decent 30-15 record the remainder of the season. What changed is anyone’s guess, but most evident from the trade seems to be that Rudy Gay did not mesh well with the rest of the squad.
The thing with the Raptors going into the playoffs is because they have never truly been a successful team in the postseason, they are probably the most unpredictable. They are not feared like the Bulls are, but their advantage is also a disadvantage. Their lack of playoff experience lends itself to other teams not knowing what to expect; at the same time though, that lack of experience may hurt them against playoff tested teams like the Heat, Bulls and Pacers.
When it comes to the NBA playoff positioning of the first round, without a doubt the Raptors want the Wizards instead of the Nets who while inconsistent, have one of the deepest rosters in the league. Additionally, the Raptors are 2-1 this season against the Wizards while splitting their series with the Nets.
However, the Raptors might be best with the fourth spot. Why? The Heat have their number this season by sweeping the season series between the two 4-0. Because of this, the Raptors do not want to play the Heat and would rather wait as long as they can to play them in a possible conference finals if they make it that far.
Speaking of the Bulls, the Raptors have tied them this season, and it remains to be seen how they fare with the current Bulls since the last time they played each other was in February. Meanwhile, the Raptors split the season with the Pacers 2-2, which is their best bet for the second round especially with an Indiana team who seems to have lost their identity.
Overall though, the Raptors have a problem once they get past the first round. The Pacers may be the easier team, but between the big guns of the East, they do not have a winning record against any of them and collectively have a 4-8 record overall against the Bulls, Pacers and Heat. As a result, their NBA playoff positioning will affect their postseason greatly.
It comes down to one game though. It has gone to the wire and for the NBA playoff positioning preference between the Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors, this final game truly is a matter of who goes to Miami in the second round. At the end of the day, both teams should beat the Wizards and Nets no problem, but in order to survive longer in the playoffs with a slight possibility of making the finals, it comes down to avoiding the Heat as long as possible.
Commentary by Simon Mounsey