Quick show of hands: Who loves predictions? Prognosticating the playoffs in advance might be an easier task than predicting the end result before the season even begins, but the NBA postseason is always unpredictable and with fears of ragged play after the lockout being unfounded, it's shaping up to be, as Joakim Noah likes to say, "an exciting time."Speaking of Noah's Bulls, before getting into league-wide predictions, it's an all-or-nothing proposition, as fans want to know if this is the year the team breaks the title drought that's plagued it since the Jordan era. Well, Derrick Rose's return and a fully-intact roster certainly help, but the added motivation of Sixers swingman Evan Turner's comments -- in case you've been living under a rock, the second-year pro and Chicago native said Philadelphia is "dodging the tougher team" by taking on the Bulls, instead of the Heat -- is what could push them over the edge.Not that the Bulls are undergoing some kind of internal team turmoil, but with their relative struggles in April, it appeared that they were in a bit of a malaise, at least for them, and needed a fire lit under them. Now, they'll claim they don't need any outside motivation, but after being informed of Turner's comments, to a man, it was evident that the perceived disrespect touched a nerve.Expect the Bulls to dispatch the Sixers in quick fashion. If Rose uses that series to get in rhythm, it should carry over to a potential second-round series with the Celtics, who are playing well at the right time, but struggle with the Bulls' size and frankly, can't beat the Bulls in a seven-game series if Rose is even a semblance of his former self, despite their championship experience, as Rip Hamilton's recent groove, as well as the Bulls' lack of fear -- stemming from their epic first-round series of a few years back -- make the aging squad bait. Then, unless Central Division rival Indiana pulls a shocker and upsets the Heat in an expected second-round matchup, comes Miami.After last week's road loss, in which the Heat played a surprisingly physical brand of basketball, many gave Miami an edge over the Bulls, seeing it as a foreshadowing of the future. However, examining the Bulls on a nightly basis in Tom Thibodeau's two-year tenure as head coach, that performance was an aberration and after receiving so much scrutiny for their passivity, it's unlikely that recent history repeat itself.Therefore, ditto for the potential series in general, as the two insults -- Turner's verbal slight and the perception that the Bulls are somehow a soft team -- will ramp up their intensity even further, resulting in no more uncontested drives for MVP frontrunner LeBron James or All-Star sidekick Dwyane Wade. It won't be easy, but if Rose is back in the swing of things by then, which will be needed to advance to that point anyway, and his supporting cast utilizes the confidence gained from posting an 18-9 record without him this season, vengeance will be Chicago's.In the NBA Finals, the wide-open West is hard to predict. UnlessThunder guard James Harden, the NBA's likely Sixth Man of the Year award winner, doesn't recover effectively from a concussion suffered after the elbow heard around the world from Lakers forward Ron Artest, Oklahoma City should make it to the championship round. The top-seeded Spurs, regardless of how impressive they've been all season -- if they manage to get by the Clippers or Grizzlies, who ousted them a year ago, in the second round -- might not be able to contend with the younger team's combination of interior size and two-headed scoring duo of All-Star point guard Ruseell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, who recently won an unprecedented third consecutive league scoring title. If that plays out, the Bulls will again have revenge on their minds after being throttled at Oklahoma City, sans Rose, earlier this month and while the Thunder are indeed talented, the Bulls' defensive mentality should prove the old adage, "defense wins championships" to be correct.So while nothing's guaranteed, if the Bulls win it all, one thing is for sure: Turner should be lauded in his hometown for providing the Bulls with an added boost that should serve them well as the playoffs begin. He just won't feel the love come Saturday, when the series opens.Predictions:No. 1 Bulls vs. No. 8 76ers: Bulls in five games.Why? All of the above.No. 2 Heat vs. No. 7 Knicks: Heat in six.Why? Miami certainly drew the short end of the stick by having to face New York, but while Carmelo Anthony, a much-improved defense and the Knicks' overall offensive firepower -- Amar'e Stoudemire looked good in the season finale -- will be issues, the Heat's overall talent reigns supreme. Also, LeBron James loves playing at Madison Square Garden.No. 3 Pacers vs. No. 6 Magic: Pacers in five.Why? Indiana's burgeoning confidence and playoff experience from a year ago will come into play against a reeling, short-handed Orlando team that simply doesn't match up well with them. Expect the Pacers to pound the Magic inside with the absence of All-Star center Dwight Howard.No. 4 Hawks vs. No. 5 Celtics: Celtics in five.Why? Boston ended the regular season on a roll and although future Hall of Famer Ray Allen is currently banged up, Atlanta just doesn't have enough weapons, especially with star big man Al Horford still on the shelf. Look for superstar point guard Rajon Rondo and the remaining "Big Two" of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to dominate.No. 1 Spurs vs. No. 8 Jazz: Spurs in five.Why? San Antonio's additions have made them a much deeper team, but it's the veteran core of Tony Parker, Manu Ginbili and Tim Duncan that will be the key against a young Utah squad. While the Jazz have a nice collection of size and young talent, the Spurs will be too much for them.No. 2 Thunder vs. No. 7 Mavericks: Thunder in five.Why? Oklahoma City has something to prove and opening the playoffs against defending-champion Dallas, the team that ousted them last postseason, will get them off to a strong start. The Thunder duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is a less than ideal dilemma for the Mavericks to handle without Tyson Chandler anchoring their defense.No. 3 Lakers vs. No. 6 Nuggets: Lakers in seven.Why? This series is a bit of a toss-up, but the Lakers' experience should prevail against a young, deep and talented Nuggets team. If Denver can get the Lakers into a transition game, that spells trouble, but Kobe Bryant seems determined not to let his team get embarrassed two springs in a row.No. 4 Grizzlies vs. No. 5 Clippers: Grizzlies in six.Why? Memphis getting home-court advantage was significant, as it will be tough for the Clippers to win in the "Grind House," and as much as Chris Paul has turned the franchise's fortunes around, the size and physical style of the Grizzlies will take a toll on high-flying Blake Griffin. Paul will have to be at his absolute best for the Clippers to have a chance.Eastern Conference semifinals:Bulls vs. Celtics: Bulls in six.Why? To paraphrase Bulls announcer Stacey King, the Bulls are too big, too strong, too deep and too good for the Celtics. Now equipped with the experience of a deep playoff run and Rip Hamilton to counter longtime nemesis Ray Allen, Boston just doesn't have any advantages over Chicago, and if Rose has found his stride, it might get ugly.Heat vs. Pacers: Heat in seven.Why? This series will be tougher than expected for the Heat, as the Pacers have a significant advantage at center with All-Star Roy Hibbert and match up at other positions -- Danny Granger and Paul George on the wing, David West and Tyler Hansbrough at power forward, the guard trio of George Hill, Darren Collison and Leandro Barbosa -- but Miami's star power should pull it out. James and Dwyane Wade will need to play at a high level, but Chris Bosh's role might be even more important.Western Conference semifinals:Spurs vs. Grizzlies: Spurs in seven.Why? On paper, the Grizzlies should win this series, since like last year, their combination of size, athleticism and defensive-minded style of play is a tough matchup for the Spurs, particularly with Zach Randolph back in the lineup. However, after getting upset by Memphis last spring, and having a healthy Ginobili to counter Rudy Gay being back in the fold, San Antonio will be desperate to avoid getting stunned again, meaning Parker will have to decisively win his battle with Mike Conley.Thunder vs. Lakers: Thunder in six.Why? This might be the best series of the round, especially if Metta World Peace is back from his suspension for elbowing Thunder sixth man James Harden. The Bryant-Durant scoring battle will also be closely scrutinized, but the Lakers' hopes depend on the effectiveness of point-guard acquisition Ramon Sessions against Westbrook, as well as how Oklahoma City interior defenders Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka fare against Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.Eastern Conference finals:Bulls vs. Heat: Bulls in seven.Why? The Bulls' fate might actually depend on the previous round, as they would gain an edge if they can dispatch a smallish Celtics team quickly and a more physical Pacers squad beats up the Heat. Both teams have plenty of motivation -- Miami to win the first of many titles promised two summers ago and Chicago simply vanquishing a villain--but the confidence the Bulls gained from beating the Heat twice while short-handed in the regular season should pay off and Rose has been anticipating this moment for nearly a year now.Western Conference finals:Spurs vs. Thunder: Thunder in seven.Why? A tough series with the Grizzlies could truly take a toll on on aging Spurs team and the youthful Thunder are far from the elixir they need to recover. Durant is virtually unguardable in general, but San Antonio doesn't have anyone who matches up remotely well with the league scoring champ and after Oklahoma City advanced to the same point last postseason, their veteran experience against superior talent might not matter this time around.NBA Finals:Bulls vs. Thunder: Bulls in six.Why? After being demolished at Oklahoma City early this month, the Bulls will still have a sour taste in their mouths and with Rose back in the lineup to match up with his close friend Westbrook, the odds will be evened. However, expect Chicago's defense to clamp down on Durant much more and the Thunder's lack of balanced scoring might finally catch up to them, leading to another parade in Grant Park.
Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.
1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.
There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.
They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.
To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?
2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.
In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.
They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.
3. Something's gotta give.
Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.
Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford.
The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).
Who's going to crack first?
The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.
Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.
The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.
It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.
"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."
Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.
It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.
"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."
Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.
"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."
Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.
We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.
That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.
And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.
In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.