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Bulls should cruise past Pacers in opening round

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Bulls should cruise past Pacers in opening round

Saturday, April 16, 2011Posted: 10:30 AM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

Its finally time. Time to tell whether, after a 62-win regular season that resulted in the leagues top overall seed in the postseason, the Bulls championship aspirations are reality or a figment of their (and an increasingly growing fan bases) imaginations.

Chicagos first-round series against the Pacers might not seem like much of a test after racking up a 3-1 record during the seasonthe lone loss, an overtime defeat in Indiana with Carlos Boozer out of the lineup, was the Bulls sole Central Division setback of the seasonbut it can be used as a measuring stick for the future.

Schanowski predicts Bulls in five games

Such issues as Joakim Noahs return to form, Boozer and Noahs on-court chemistry, the extent of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeaus playoff rotation, the level to which Derrick Rose raises his game and whether Luol Dengs quietly stellar campaign continues in the postseason are all things to watch.

But perhaps the most pressing item on the agenda, however, is the question of the Bulls playoff experience.

There are key Bulls who have made deep postseason runs, such as veteran Kurt Thomas and the former Utah trio of Boozer, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver, but the only player on the team who has won a championship is seldom-used reserve forward Brian Scalabrine, who will likely be inactive for games.

While Deng has been to the second round and both Rose and Noah played major roles in the Bulls classic first-round series against the Celtics two years agoTaj Gibson has also had a taste of the playoffs from his experience as a rookie starter in last springs first-round series against Clevelandthis Bulls team isnt exactly teeming with grizzled vets, who have been through the battles that forge reputations in this league.

But although the Bulls freely acknowledge they havent proved anything yet, this squad has carried themselves with the end in mind all season. In terms of their preparation, maturitylocker-room issues and off-court drama isnt going on unreported by the media, they simply dont existand ability to bounce back from losses, the Bulls are a throwback to another era, in which basketball was just about the game and nothing else.

Check out Stacey King's favorite dunks from the Bulls' season

Unfortunately for their first-round opponent, Indiana, the Bulls have also displayed another qualityholding grudgesthat has served them well. From the sting of losing their last matchup to the Pacers to Danny Grangers inflammatory comments (whether or not the Bulls admit to it), not to mention simply being motivated for the playoffs in general, its unlikely the Pacers even come close to testing the Bulls' mettle in the opening round. Heres a closer look at the series:

Point guard: Derrick Rose vs. Darren Collison

Collison is a solid young player, but this is almost unfair. The likely league MVP will overpower his second-year counterpart and while Granger told reporters the Bulls go as Rose goes, the Pacers only win against Chicago during the series was when the All-Star point guard matched his career-high, scoring 42 points. Look for Rose to take his game to another level, not only dominating as a scorer, but consciously involving his teammates to prove Chicago isnt a one-man show.

Shooting guard: Keith Bogans vs. Paul George

Bogans has been much maligned by Bulls fans all seasonand its possible that Roses joking comments about utilizing President Barack Obama as the teams starting shooting guard at Navy Pier Thursday didnt helpbut hes played his role expertly, hitting timely three-pointers and playing tough defense, as well as facilitating ball movement. While almost nobody around the league would take Bogans over the rookie George in the future, the veterans physicality will be important against a bruising Indiana squad. George has been a starter for the Pacers since interim head coach Frank Vogel took over and shows flashes of potential occasionally, but its unlikely he has much of an impact in the series.

Small forward: Luol Deng vs. Danny Granger

Deng, in particular, claimed to not be personally motivated by Grangers comments, but seeing as the two play the same position, its impossible that he wasnt at least slightly affected. The native of the Sudan actually defends Granger well, forcing him to his off hand and luring him into taking difficult, contested jumpers, while putting pressure on Indianas leading scorer on the other end of the floor with his versatility. Expect Deng, the Bulls workhorse, defensive stopper and glue guy, to have a strong series individually.

Power forward: Carlos Boozer vs. Tyler Hansbrough

Hansbrough stepped up his game since former head coach Jim OBriens firinga day after losing to the Bulls at the United Centerand played extremely well in the Pacers March win, in which Boozer didnt suit up. However, while Boozer may not be the most defensively-inclined player, his bulk, rebounding prowess and ability to draw fouls will mitigate some of his second-year counterparts strengths. Also, theres the whole Duke-North Carolina thing (Boozer went to Duke, Hansbrough is a North Carolina graduate), too, so expect Boozers college pride to kick in for some extra motivation.

Center: Joakim Noah vs. Roy Hibbert

This is perhaps the most intriguing positional matchup, as the two young pivots are two of the leagues best at their position, but bring different strengths to the table. Noah, who is still recovering from various ailments, thrives on his high activity level, rebounding, defense and running the floor, while the 7-foot-2 Hibbert uses his size, shooting tough and low-post game to be effective. If the Bulls can successfully play at a fast pace, Noahs agility should give Hibbert problems, but for that to happen, Noah must get back to his dominant ways on the boards.

Bench:

Chicago (Taj Gibson, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson, Kurt Thomas, Omer Asik) vs. Indiana (Mike Dunleavy, Josh McRoberts, Jeff Foster, Brandon Rush, A.J. Price)

Indiana actually has some solid reserves, especially in the frontcourt, but the Bulls depth and consistency should overwhelm the Pacers. More significant is whether Thibodeau decides to trim his rotation in the playoffsthe rookie Asik could be a victim, as Thomas experience and physical nature should serve the Bulls well in the postseasonbut regardless, its nice to have options. If the Bench Mob can replicate what theyve done all season, the Bulls will have a major edge.

Coach: Tom Thibodeau vs. Frank Vogel

Both coaches are in their first season at the helmVogel got the job in the middle of the campaignbut the differences in experience are huge. Although the Pacers definitely responded better to Vogel than OBrien, Thibodeaus postseason experience after 20 years as an NBA assistant have him leaps and bounds ahead of the virtual novice on the opposing sideline. Its possible that Indiana plays as if they have nothing to lose and challenges the Bulls, but Thibodeaus intensity and extensive preparation wont leave much to chance.

Prediction: Bulls, 4-0

Many observers believe the Pacers could steal a game, but the focus of this Bulls team has been incredible all season and theres no reason to expect that to change now. Rose should take his game to another level, his teammates, as usual, will follow his lead and the squads single-minded mentality will reap benefits. Barring a complete catastrophe in a single game, it should be smooth sailing for Chicago.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Reaction to Lauri Markkanen’s injury and loss to Kings

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USA TODAY

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Reaction to Lauri Markkanen’s injury and loss to Kings

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders podcast, Matt Peck, David Watson, and John Sabine react to the Bulls 98-81 loss to the Kings.

1:00 - Reaction to the loss and LaVine getting double-teamed

2:50 - On Jim Boylen saying don’t expect system changes with Markkanen hurt

4:25 - Sabine’s list of things that have happened since the last time the Kings made the playoffs in 2006

5:35 - Viewer comment on LaVine and Coby

6:40 - Viewer comment on Denzel Valentine

8:00 - On the importance of 1st vs 3rd quarter

9:00 - Viewer comment on possible trades

11:00 - Viewer comment on seeing Bulls without Markkanen

14:30 - On Lauri Markkanen’s hip injury and missing 4-6 weeks

18:40 - Viewer comment asking if Bulls should shut down Markkanen

19:50 - Hey Matt Peck, did you see what DRose did tonight?

21:15 - Viewer comment on what to expect from Lauri when he returns

23:40 - Viewer asking the greatest moment the Outsiders have witnessed

24:55 - On NBA naming the All-Star starters

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below:

Without Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine's job will only get more difficult

Without Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine's job will only get more difficult

It’s been the most pressing on-court issue facing the Bulls all season — in a season full of them:

Outside of Zach LaVine, where do the points come from?

The glare of that question is only set to amplify with Lauri Markkanen now set to miss four to six weeks with a pelvic injury. Take tonight’s 98-81 defeat at the hands of the Kings as an example. LaVine tallied 21 — his 13th consecutive game with 20 or more. Thad Young chipped in 10; Kris Dunn did, too. But the rest of the team mustered 40, and the Bulls finished with 81 points against the Kings’ 18th-rated defense.

For a stretch — a 109-second one, to start the second half — it appeared LaVine might single-handedly save the day, as he has before. He opened the third quarter with 10 quick points to shave a 10-point halftime deficit to two after tallying eight in the first two periods combined.

But the Kings clamped up. The rest of the way, LaVine scored only thrice and was ever on the run from one, two or three Sacramento defenders at a time, depending on the possession. The Bulls’ dearth of scoring around him made the gameplan a simple one: Cut the head off the snake. LaVine finished just 8-for-21 from the field.

“I think they did a good job of that,” Jim Boylen said of the Kings’ throwing waves of bodies LaVine’s way. “Zach's a primary guy and they treated him like a primary guy. He got up 21 shots. You know, six rebounds. I thought he tried.”

This storyline isn’t going away. As of this writing, three of the Bulls’ top five scorers (Marrkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr.) are sidelined and weeks (at least) away from return. Young, steady as he is, isn’t going to transform into a consistent 20-point scorer overnight. Tomas Satoransky and Coby White represent the Bulls’ best chance of secondary explosions on a night-to-night basis — but against Sacramento, they combined for 16 points on 4-for-16 shooting.

“I mean, [opponents have] been doing that,” LaVine said of the double and triple-teams he received tonight. “We gotta get somebody to step up, and I think we'll find it. It's the first game without Lau [Lauri Markkanen]. We'll figure out what we gotta do in Cleveland.”

Easier said than done. Down another primary 3-point threat in Markkanen, the Bulls shot 8-for-37 from deep tonight, the fifth time in seven games they’ve made less than 10 3-pointers. They’re now 2-13 on the season when they make less than 10 3s.

“Will we have to adjust some things and maybe play a little differently? Maybe,” Jim Boylen said of the team’s shooting. “I'll evaluate with the shots we got and what else we had. But I'm not gonna reinvent the wheel in January, I'm not gonna do that.”

The Bulls — spearheaded by Boylen and LaVine — insist they’re going to keep plugging. Still, an offense already third-to-last in the league in offensive rating just lost another cog, and the impact was apparent. LaVine already carried as great an offensive load as anyone in the league. Now, if he didn’t already, he’ll receive as much attention as anyone, too.

“That's up to coach. I'm prepared for everything. I think my conditioning's [good], so we'll see, maybe I gotta do that,” LaVine said of potentially taking on more minutes.

And of the injuries: “Nobody's gonna feel bad for you. They're just gonna try to take advantage of it.”

The Kings did that successfully tonight. The Bulls hope it doesn't prove a foreshadowing.

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