Monday, Apr.5, 2010
By Mark Schanowski
So, what do you think? Will the Bulls make the playoffs for a 2nd straight season? Please post your comments in the section below.
Give the players and coaching staff a lot of credit for not giving up in the wake of all the injuries and the frustration of a ten-game losing streak. Things looked pretty bleak with a 31-37 record, and Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Derrick Rose all trying to return from injuries. But since that time, the Bulls have gone 6-2, and they're now just one game behind Toronto for the final playoff spot in the East. The Raptors have already clinched the season series against the Bulls, which means they'll get the playoff spot if the two teams wind up with the same record. So, that puts everything on Sunday's match-up in Toronto. The Bulls MUST win that game to have any chance to get back to the post-season.
Toronto has been a tough team for the Bulls to handle in recent seasons. Not only do they have one of the best power forwards in the game in free-agent-to-be Chris Bosh, but point guard Jose Calderon has hurt the Bulls in the past, and Toronto also has a couple of big men who can nail the 3 point shot in Andrea Bargnani and Hedo Turkoglu. They've been able to spread the Bulls' defense and find open shooters to knock down the 3. Even rookie shooting guard DeMar DeRozan has hurt the Bulls this season with his ability to penetrate and finish at the rim. Toronto may be a .500 team that's struggled against some inferior teams, but they've played like world beaters against the Bulls. The Raptors have some tough games coming up, including a match-up with Cleveland Tuesday night, but the Bulls have an even harder schedule over the final 9 days of the regular season, so it figures to come down to which team wins the showdown in Toronto on Sunday.
NOAH AND DENG SURPRISINGLY SHARP IN RETURN
No one really knew what to expect from Noah and Deng after their extended absence from game competition, but they've made a huge difference in the Bulls' play over the last few games. Noah is back in the starting line-up, playing big minutes, and he put up a double-double in the win over Charlotte on Saturday. Deng was knocking down jumpers in his return against Washington last Friday, and he moved back into the starting line-up against Charlotte, clinching the victory with a late steal and lay-up. The Bulls probably would have beaten Phoenix last week if Deng had been able to play. Their lack of size allowed Jason Richardson and Grant Hill to score easily against smaller defenders, and the Suns got several key offensive rebounds with the game on the line in the 4th quarter. Now, with Noah and Deng back, the Bulls can put a legitimate NBA line-up on the floor at all times, and they can even go big with Brad Miller at center and Noah at the power forward. It's amazing what having a mostly healthy roster has meant to the Bulls confidence level and body language in recent games. There's no doubt in my mind the Bulls would be competing for the 5th or 6th spot in the East if not for the rash of injuries that led to all those losses in March.
GIBSON NOW A PART OF BULLS CORE FOR THE FUTURE
And let's not forget about Taj Gibson, who's emerged as one of the steals of last summer's draft. Gibson posted double-doubles in each of the Bulls' wins over the weekend, and the coaching staff now has enough confidence in him to run post-up plays, especially in the early going. Not much was expected of Gibson when the Bulls drafted him with the 26th overall pick in round one, but he's been a consistent contributor from day one, and ran with the starting position after Tyrus Thomas broke his arm 5 games into the season. LeBron James specifically mentioned Gibson when he was asked about the Bulls roster last month, and he gave the rookie a post-game hug following a narrow Cleveland win at the United Center. Now, I'm not saying Taj Gibson will be a big factor in LeBron's free agent decision this summer, but the King knows the Bulls have a talented, young roster that's ready to win with the addition of the right free agent. If you put LeBron or Dwyane Wade on a Bulls' team with Rose, Noah, Deng, Gibson and Kirk HInrich, they're instantly a contender to win the NBA title. The upcoming free agent class is loaded with All-Star caliber power forwards like Bosh, Amar'e Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer and David Lee, but given Gibson's emergence as a quality starter, look for the Bulls to go hard after LeBron and D-Wade first, before moving on to the power forward group. They might even see if Atlanta's Joe Johnson would be willing to come for less than a max offer and see if they can add another free agent at a lower price. If the Bulls are able to trade Hinrich sometime around the NBA draft, they might even be able to free up enough cap room to extend offers to both Johnson and Lee. It's all pretty fluid right now, with the teams with cap room trying to work through all kinds of potential scenarios for what might happen when the clock strikes midnight on June 30thJuly 1st.
But don't give up on the possibility of the Bulls landing either LeBron or D-Wade. You can bet the Bulls' front office will be in there making a serious pitch, and Wade's desire to be with his two children who are living with their mother in the Chicago area might also play into his free agent decision. Wade and his estranged wife are currently going through a messy divorce, with Wade now filing for custody of his children. Who knows if the circumstances in his personal life might lead him to decide a return to Chicago is in his best interests. It's just one more factor to watch as we close in on the long-awaited free agent chase of 2010.
I'll see you from the United Center Tuesday during the 6:30 edition of SportsNite as we get ready for the Bulls-Bucks game. Milwaukee suffered a devastating injury over the weekend with the loss of starting center Andrew Bogut. Bogut was playing the best basketball of his young career, and the Bucks just aren't the same team without him. If you saw the fall Saturday night, it was one of the scariest injuries we've seen in awhile. Bogut broke his right hand, and also dislocated his right elbow. Hopefully, he can make a complete recovery and get back to playing basketball next season. But don't count the Bucks out just yet. Scott Skiles is one of the best coaches in the league, and he'll find a way to come up with the right line-up combinations to give his team a chance to win. The Bulls better be ready for a battle Tuesday night.