The majority of the Eastern Conference matchups could, arguably, be considered sweep potential. However, the NBA playoffs series between the fourth placed Chicago Bulls vs the fifth placed Washington Wizards, promises to pit two teams who have gained momentum at the tail end of the season.
Despite being the fourth seed, the Bulls are probably the one team in the Eastern Conference that no one wants to play. They were an inconsistent team, on the heels of Derrick Rose being hurt for the season, but since the beginning of January, there are not many teams who have played better. As a result, they have had a 37-16 record since the beginning of the year.
In terms of the NBA playoffs, the Bulls have been a team that has looked ready to contend for the championship for years, but something has always derailed them, whether it is an injury, the championship Boston Celtics or any team Lebron James is on. Last season, The Bulls looked strong early, taking out the Nets in six in the first round, but despite close play in the second round, they ultimately fell to the Heat in five.The previous season was worse, when they lost to the 76ers in the first round due to Derrick Rose getting hurt. Two season ago, they made it all the way to the conference finals, where not surprisingly, they lost to the Miami Heat. Despite that, the Bulls look good headed into the playoffs in 2014. They have proven to be a well-rounded team without their leader, with their brand of lockdown defense and team play. Luckily for them, they will not have to play the Heat until the conference finals.
The Wizards’ season is not much different from the Bulls — the only difference is that their surge came much later than the Bulls’ run. Their season, up until the final month or so of the season, was made up of them failing to make it above the 50 percent mark. The team is made up of a solid starting lineup led by John Wall, who serves as their top scorer at 19.3 ppg, top in assists at 8.8 apg and steals 1.8 spg. He is complimented with spot-up shooters Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza. What makes up their game though, is the balance of inside-outside play with the inclusion of Marcin Gortat and Nene Hilario. Unfortunately, their game was a struggle over the last month, when Nene was out with an injury. As a result, the Wizards ended the season with a 42-38 record.
Unfortunately, history is not on the side of the Wizards in the NBA playoffs. This season actually marks the first time since the 2007-2008 season that the Wizards have played in the postseason. Before that, they were a perennial playoff team that typically was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, with the exception of the 2004-2005 season, where they ironically beat the Bulls, before being swept by the Heat. Needless to say, none of those players are still with the team.
The season series between the Bulls and Wizards is an interesting one. They managed to avoid playing each other until January; however, they also met each other twice in a matter of a week. What made things more interesting, is that the Wizards were the first loss the Bulls had, since their January streak. Additionally, the Bulls also lost to them a few games later.
It should be noted that the first two games were immediately after the Luol Deng trade. The Bulls, while on a run, were still figuring out their game plan. From those first two games, it seemed the Wizards gave the Bulls headaches, despite Chicago having one of the top defenses. Wall had 19 points in the first game, while having a double-double of 23 points and 11 assists in the second meeting. The Wizards also shot over 50 percent in both of these games.
When it came to Chicago, their key players were not consistent game to game. In the first matchup, Carlos Boozer led with 19 points, while the second game had the inconsistent Kirk Hinrich with 18 and D.J. Augustin with 16.
Their third game between each other told a much different story, as the Bulls annihilated the Wizards 96-78. In this game, the Bulls were scoring at will in the first half, with a 28-16 first quarter lead, which led to a 52-26 lead at halftime. This had much to do with the fact that the Bulls were shooting 47 percent, while the Wizards only shot 31 percent. However, the Wizards showed signs of life in the third quarter by scoring 35 points. Unfortunately, the run did not last, as the Bulls started the fourth on a 12-0 run, which spelled the end for the Wizards. During this game, it was Noah who led the Bulls with 21 points and 12 rebounds, while Wall had 20 points and Gortat put in 19 points and eight rebounds.
The problem with this game is that the Wizards did not have much help. The team had an awful first half and fourth quarter, which ultimately led to them being embarrassed. However, this game did not feature Nene, and as a result, made it so Noah was able to score at will, while also taking control of the boards.
The Wizards may have won the season series, but the Bulls were not playing at their current level, until the last meeting of the two. Considering the Bulls were trying to find themselves in those losses and the Wizards were without Nene that final game, makes it impossible to predict this series based on those games. What one needs to look at for this series, is how the teams have been playing as of late.
The Bulls are arguably one of the better teams in the league, since the turn of 2014. Noah has upped his game tremendously, by not only being a double-double machine, but by being the team’s top playmaker, with several triple-doubles under his belt. For the Wizards to beat them, they need to shut Noah down. As such, the play of Gortat and Nene will be the deciding factor in this series. Trying to outboard Noah will be an arduous task, but considering Nene and Gortat will be inside, it should not be as much of a problem. Instead, the problem is when the ball is in Noah’s hands, which is when he is most dangerous. Because of this, the Wizards need to minimize Noah’s touches.
To outscore the Bulls,Wall has to have a big series. Fortunately, he may have his wish as it will be Kirk Hinrich on him for the most part, with some support from D.J. Augustin. In order for the Wizards to win this series though, Wall has to not only shoot but shoot efficiently, while also being the playmaker he has been in the past.
Roster depth is going to be an interesting aspect of this series. The Wizards have an incredible starting lineup; however, the Wizards just do not have the depth. Martell Webster will occasionally come in as a spark plug, and the aging players of Andre Miller, Al Harrington and Drew Gooden may put in some solid play for Washington from time to time. Having said that, the Wizards need the starters to play to full capacity in order to beat the Bulls.
The Bulls on the other hand have quite the depth. In fact, there is no one standout player who will lead the team game after game. Instead, the Wizards have to contend with a dangerous starting lineup and bench that runs about 10 guys deep. As such, the Bulls might just have too many weapons for the Wizards.
In terms of coaching, it will be a tough series for Washington’s Randy Wittman. The Bulls’ coach Tom Thibodeau eats, drinks and sleeps basketball. He is highly regarded around the league for his tactical expertise, especially when it comes to the defensive end. Being able to outsmart Thibodeau will almost impossible.
Game 1 Preview
One thing about both of these teams, is that they are defensively minded. Having said that, expect the first game, as well as most in this series, to be very low scoring. Despite that, expect John Wall to have a tremendous first game, where he possibly even gets a double-double. On the other side of the coin though, expect Noah to do everything right and give Washington’s big men trouble at both ends of the court.
Also, expect Washington to have surges and cold streaks. When their starters are in play, they have a very good chance of winning the game. The problem for them is going to come later in the game, when they have to rest their top dogs, since their bench is not productive enough. As a result, expect a win by the Bulls by about 6-10 points, despite Washington having a run at them in the final minutes.
This series will be full of adjustments as it goes along. Washington will adjust frequently, to get Noah off his game, while the Bulls will do the same for Wall. What this contest will really come down to is the play of the role players. Because the Chicago Bulls have the depth, expect them to beat the Washington Wizards in the NBA playoffs in five hard-fought games.
Commentary by Simon Mounsey