With the Bulls set to kick off their first round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill and Mark Strotman are chatting about the Bulls' prospects this postseason. Here's what transpired:
Mark Strotman: LeBron James heading home. The Splash Brothers and the Warriors taking the NBA by storm. A narrow, four-player MVP race late into the year. The Atlanta Hawks reeling off 19 straight wins. Far too many injuries to stars and rookies alike. Derek Fisher and the Knicks trying to run the triangle offense. Derrick Rose's return after two years away from the game. The 2014-15 regular season had a little bit of everything, setting up what should be a terrific postseason with plenty of intriguing storylines.
As it pertains to the Bulls, Tom Thibodeau's group will be making their seventh straight trip to the postseason. And with Rose back in the lineup, Jimmy Butler playing at an All-Star level, Pau Gasol having a career year at age 34 and a bench with offensive firepower, when healthy (which they are) this is the Bulls' most talented roster since Thibodeau took over in 2009. Yet for a fifth straight season, the question remains: Can the Bulls get past LeBron James? In James' four seasons in Miami, twice he knocked out the Bulls on his way to Finals appearances (as well as his final season in Cleveland), and with the two teams headed for a collision course in the semifinals, my question is: What will it take for the Bulls to get over that 6-foot-8, 250-pound hump in Northeast Ohio?
I believe it begins with the play of Jimmy Butler. Before he was named an All-Star ranked 15th in the league in scoring, Butler averaged 41.6 minutes per game in 17 playoff games the last two seasons as the Bulls' primary defensive stopper while also averaging a respectable 13.4 points. Now the onus is on him to continue that All-NBA Defensive Second Team defense from a year ago while also playing the second scoring option behind Pau Gasol. Chicago's slight defensive regression this season (11th in defensive efficiency after four straight years in the top-5) will need to improve in the playoffs, and that's on Butler. Joakim Noah isn't playing at a Defensive-Player-of-the-Year-caliber level, while Gasol and Derrick Rose aren't cut out for the role, meaning Butler needs to be "the guy" while also maintaining his season point and shooting averages.
Vincent Goodwill: Jimmy Butler, you say? If it starts with him, he has to be the best wingman in this series. You know, the guy who sets everything up for his buddy at the bar? Smooth conversation, under control, low maintenance, that's what Butler has to be. The ultimate complement to Derrick Rose.
And not Derrick Rose the 30-point scorer, but the player who controls the game from a playmaking standpoint. He's displayed far more mastery at the point guard spot since he's returned from injury than I ever recalled, and while some of that is a function of learning and trusting his body, that mindset must carry over. Rose will be the first option when he's out there but by the attention he commands, Butler has to benefit.
If that tantalizing and drama-filled Bulls-Cavs matchup occurs, you try to prevent James from his explosions while trying to keep Kyrie Irving from making a mockery of the series, because he can. In other words, hope and pray.
Strotman: Butler's breakout campaign and Rose's third, fourth and fifth returns from injury this year dominated headlines, while Gasol became the dollar-for-dollar best free agent signing of the offseason (Gar Forman owes Carmelo a fruit basket and a thank you card at some point, by the way). But I was amazed at how little criticism Noah received this year. It was almost as if the positive headlines coming out of the United Center allowed Noah a free pass because, hey, they were winning. True, Noah finished last year's playoffs on one knee and dealt with that injury most of this season. Even still, this isn't a fan base that gives free passes for injuries (see: Rose, Derrick).
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Looking past the fans' criticism, though, Noah shot a career-worst 44.5 percent from the field and was nowhere near the same defender he was a year ago. It's clear he hasn't been totally healthy most of the year, but in the playoffs that'll get you sent home packing. The biggest issue may be that a true center playing power forward on a bad knee/hamstring is going to have to guard stretch-fours in Ersan Ilyasova, Paul Millsap, and/or Kevin Love in the coming weeks. I have serious doubts about how much Noah will be able to contribute in a seven-game series. Am I overreacting? It was, after all, Noah who said "the plan" was to flip the switch once the playoffs began.
Goodwill: I think the lack of attention placed on Noah's play has been for two reasons. One, he's always been thought of as the heart and soul of the on-court product. He speaks candidly, he's been around and his effort always looks on-point. It's hard to quantify his numbers because his effect has always been greater than tangibly.
How do those passes get there? How does he even make free throws? It's apparent he has trouble finishing in traffic and the offense is run differently because of Gasol's presence and the emergence of Jimmy Butler. I think if Noah believes he's been playing possum all season with the hope he'll be able to turn it on during the playoffs, that's very dangerous.
The true problem is you have to wonder about all the interior defenders the Bulls have. Each has major concerns. Taj Gibson, is he healthy? Nikola Mirotic, is he ready for the physicality of the postseason? Gasol, he struggled with Al Horford Wednesday night at the United Center and against mobile bigs as a whole. Will they be able to keep athletic bigs off the offensive glass, i.e. Milwaukee and Cleveland?
Noah's play is a question. But there's plenty of questions all around.
Strotman: I'm glad you brought up Mirotic. I have no idea how to project him in the playoffs. He showed flashes in the season's first half, then seemingly came out of nowhere to average 20.8 points and 7.6 rebounds in March before tapering off in April. I was amazed to see he's shooting just 31.6 percent from beyond the arc this season. It just feels like he's making them at such a better clip, and that's where I'm stuck. Will the Bulls get the passing-the-eye-test version of Mirotic in the postseason, or the guy who shot 29 percent from deep and committed more turnovers than he had assists in the season's final two months?
I'm cautiously optimistic we're going to see a plus contributor...so long as he knocks off that damn pump-fake. The big question is whether or not he can improve defensively. As you mentioned, the game slows down and gets more physical in the postseason, and this is new territory for him. The Bulls were significantly worse defensively with Mirotic on the floor, and that fourth-quarter scoring magic is only going to fly with Thibs so long. And for a Bulls team that struggled rebounding the ball this season, second chances are going to loom large.
All that being said, it's incredible how unfazed he is for having only 82 NBA games under his belt. It's almost as if not fully understanding specific players' skill sets has made him fearless. Ninety-nine percent of the NBA knows not to try and defend LeBron at the rim in transition. Mirotic strikes me as that 1 percent who will say, "Screw it. I got this." It'll get him into trouble at times, but that Nate Robinson-type attitude also won the Bulls a few playoff games two years ago. (Still, Niko...When LeBron has a full head of steam? Don't jump, youngblood.)
Before we wrap this up with predictions, let me ask you: What's one area the Bulls are going to be better off in the postseason than they were in the first 82 games?
Goodwill: I understand the general feeling about Mirotic. But I'm not sure if the dependence on him will be as heavy as it ever was in March when he set the world on fire. I think once you get to the playoffs, it's more about guys who can create their shot over guys who can make them. And it'll be extremely hard to break that long-held habit of the "Niko fake", which is catching few opponents by surprise and more importantly, fewer officials (picture Danny Crawford or Joe Crawford smirking at Niko when they keep their whistles in their pockets).
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Rookies get little respect from the officials on either end in the playoffs, and defensively you wonder if some of the extra physical jousting that goes on will hurt Niko on that end. But back to offense. The dependency on shots will come from Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol. It wouldn't be a surprise if 60-70 percent of usage comes from those three guys. Niko's offense will be like chili on your coney dog (it's a Detroit thing, you'll understand one day), an added bonus but too much of it will send you holding your stomach in pain.
As far as the Bulls being better in the playoffs? Consistency on defense, actually. No more random nights where your mind wanders to the next night on the schedule or the dreaded 4-in-5 stretches that can lead to mental fatigue. The offense, of course, will come and go but I think the attention to detail defensively will lead to tighter play--plus with Thibs coaching for it all this postseason, he'll leave nothing to chance. I don't think you'll see the 110-104 final scores (except for maybe Saturday, which is the courting period), but the old-fashioned defense, if the Bulls have it in them? It'll come out in this series.
Strotman: I agree the defense will be better, or at least have fewer silly lapses (looking at you, Bulls defense that gave up 121 points to the Magic in January). Will it be good enough to slow down a Cavaliers offense that's posted a blistering, NBA-best 110.1 offensive rating since LeBron returned in mid-January? No, it won't. I believe the Bulls could end the Milwaukee series in four games if they really want to, but this Cleveland team has found a phenomenal rhythm behind James and Kyrie Irving. Hell, even the black sheep of the group, Kevin Love, was the only player in the NBA this year to average 16 points, nine rebounds and a 3-pointer per game. The Bulls hit home runs this offseason in bringing over Mirotic and signing Gasol; the problem is the Cavaliers hit grand slams with their midseason trades (not to mention signing James and trading for Love in the process).
The Bulls simply won't have the firepower to match Cleveland. I've come around on the idea of the Cavaliers being a better matchup for the Bulls than the Hawks - the Bulls went 0-3 against Atlanta this year - but that doesn't make it a good matchup. Cavaliers in six, and it won't feel that close. I've seen this LeBron vs. Bulls movie way too many times. It always ends the same.
Goodwill: Well, nobody's being foolish about their chances against the Cavs from a defensive standpoint, once that inevitable matchup happens. Their best chance at an extended run through May is taking care of business against the Bucks. The Bucks are young, athletic and energetic--as the Bulls aren't exactly brimming with young nor do they employ the versatile wings the Bucks have. But this series shouldn't be tough, and making sure they're enjoying the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight on May 2 as opposed to coming off a Game 7 or recovering from a longer-than-expected series is paramount.
Now, to LeBron. You're not stopping him and Kyrie Irving won't be the least bit concerned with the rigors and pressure of the playoffs. So the Bulls' best bet relies on two things that have come under heavy scrutiny: Coaching and depth. The Bulls have the better coach in Thibodeau and the 4th-7th guys are better as well. Trusting David Blatt in a playoff series? The Cavaliers would be better off with Scott Brooks and he's not exactly John Wooden.
All things in their favor, health and Derrick Rose, the Bulls carry this to sixth or seventh game. But the two best players are on the other side, and that usually wins out. Do the Bulls have enough? Yes. But their margin for error is so wire-thin it's too much to expect given the circumstances, and it'll make way for an interesting offseason before we reconvene next September.