NBA playoffs: Brooklyn Nets vs. Chicago Bulls preview
Two imperfect teams collide in a series that won't offer much in terms of basketball aesthetics, even as it pushes both squads to their stylistic limits. In the Nets, we have one of the league's better offensive teams -- an outfit that draws from the individual abilities of Deron Williams and Brook Lopez to manufacture points by way of simplicity. With the Bulls we have a team drawing every ounce of energy from an ill-equipped roster, which bolsters its lacking personnel with a rigorous defensive system and consistent collaboration.
It's an interesting juxtaposition. The micromanagement likely to be demonstrated by both teams may sap a tight series of its natural momentum, but there is certainly an allure to a series won inch by inch as each team strives for the best use of each crucial possession. It should be close, and could be one of the few first-round series to go the distance.
Williams is playing the best basketball of his season, and the Bulls don't have many on-ball defensive options capable of denying his drives while still honoring his potential to fill it up from outside. That's a hard balance for any defender to strike with Williams (as evidenced by his 22.9 points per game since the All-Star break), but even more difficult when the most likely defensive options are Kirk Hinrich (who won't be able to keep up with Williams no matter his effort) and Nate Robinson (who is, well, Nate Robinson). In the last meeting between these two teams, Williams exploded for 30 points and 10 assists while getting to the free-throw line for 13 attempts. All of that came in a narrow loss, but Williams could access many of those same opportunities in building a winning offensive effort.
The same optimism doesn't quite apply to Joe Johnson or Gerald Wallace, but Lopez has helped to pick up the slack by averaging 22.0 points per game against Chicago this season on 52.9 percent shooting from the field. That runs contrary to the Bulls' overall success in defending the post this year (Chicago ranks as the sixth most effective team in that defensive area, per Synergy Sports), largely because Lopez is such a unique specimen. There's still a certain rigidity to his game, but don't let his stiff post work confuse how effective Lopez is from that area of the floor or how efficient he's been overall. He's a tough player to guard, even for a Tom Thibodeau-coached defense, and is using his body more effectively than ever to maneuver into prime angles on the low block.
Beyond that, Brooklyn's mediocre defense figured to be problematic against several of the potential playoff opponents in the East, but Chicago isn't necessarily one of them. The Bulls aren't going to leverage the weaknesses in the Nets' coverage as readily or consistently as some other teams might, thereby giving Brooklyn a buffer on what could have been a point of weakness.
The lineups that Brooklyn uses most often feed precisely into what Chicago hopes to accomplish defensively. The Bulls are rather notorious for the tilt of their defense toward the strong side of the floor, an orientation that challenges opponents to make difficult passes and necessitates optimal offensive spacing. That's not exactly an option with both Reggie Evans and Gerald Wallace in the lineup for the Nets, though, individually, Evans is by far the bigger strain. Brooklyn badly needs Evans to play regular minutes to make up for Lopez's lackluster rebounding, but in games against the Bulls this season, Evans has cost the Nets an average of four points of offense for every 100 possessions that he's on the floor. That's a tough turn for a Nets team that hasn't been able to make up for that loss in production with its defense. Worse, the lanes that Evans and Wallace clog have allowed Chicago to force a turnover on roughly a fifth of Brooklyn's possessions in their head-to-head matchups this season. And many of those came when non-playmakers like Evans, Wallace and Andray Blatche attempted to make difficult plays to compensate for a cramped offense.
Minus Derrick Rose, Boozer has been the Bulls' top scorer and shot-taker in his three games against the Nets this season, averaging 21.3 points (on 53.8 percent shooting) and 10.7 rebounds. That's outstanding and necessary production for a team that can be otherwise strapped for points, and it largely comes by virtue of Boozer being quick enough to cut away from Lopez and clever enough to maneuver around Evans and Kris Humphries. Brooklyn's only answer would be to structure its defense around stopping Boozer, but that would only seem to serve the Bulls' cutters, who would have a field day with the open lanes that would surely result.
Though the Bulls lack answers for Williams or Lopez, Noah's return to the lineup (he and hard-defending reserve Taj Gibson were both absent on the occasion of Williams' 30-point night) should help significantly in the Bulls' efforts to keep at least one of those scorers under wraps. Otherwise Chicago has little to fear from Wallace and does a fine job on Johnson, who has the honor and frustration of being blanketed with Jimmy Butler and/or Luol Deng.
Joakim Noah. He may be back in the mix for the Bulls after sitting out 12 of the season's final 15 games, but will be fighting through plantar fasciitis over the course of the series and any that may follow. That nagging foot pain is unfortunate for a player so active, though Noah should be able to get some respite on the offensive end by initiating plays and making feeds from the high post. Still, there remains the possibility that Noah won't be mobile enough to cover the entire half-court on defense, and if that's the case things would definitely begin to tip in the Nets' favor.
Bulls in 7. This figures to be a drawn-out affair regardless of who emerges victorious, and the longer the series goes, the more it favors the more consistent, better-coached team. Chicago can be trusted to execute its defensive game plans over the course of a long series, but there is little reason to believe Brooklyn would be capable of upholding a high level of play throughout a seven-game affair with the spacing problems that its lineups create.