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West is best when it comes to opening round of NBA Playoffs

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West is best when it comes to opening round of NBA Playoffs

The NBA’s post-season party officially begins on Saturday with 4 games, including the Bulls-Bucks series opener at the United Center. But, let’s be honest, the real intrigue comes in the West, where seven different 50-plus win teams will battle it out in round one.

The top seeded Golden State Warriors won 67 games during the regular season, featuring the “Splash Brothers”, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, along with the league’s No. 1 ranked defense. First year head coach Steve Kerr hit all the right notes in taking over a talented and successful team from Mark Jackson, giving the players more freedom on offense while asking for accountability on the defensive end.

When you look at historical precedent, teams that reach the 67 win plateau have been nearly unstoppable in the playoffs. And, there hasn’t been a team to lead the NBA in both offensive and defensive efficiency since the Jordan Bulls. With all that in mind, Golden State has to be the favorite in the West, and should make quick work of the Anthony Davis-led Pelicans in Round 1. Let’s make it Warriors in 5.

[BULLS: Bulls tout 4th best championship odds heading into NBA playoffs]

The other three series in the West should feature some outstanding drama. Texas rivals Houston and Dallas square off in the match-up of No. 2 and No. 7 seeds. These organizations really don’t like each other, especially after the Mavericks came up with a creative offer sheet to steal talented young small forward Chandler Parsons away from Houston last summer. The Rockets have MVP candidate James Harden and a talented bench, plus big man Dwight Howard is back after taking a couple months off during the regular season to rest a sore knee. Dallas slumped late in the season after a fast start, but any team that has offensive weapons like Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis and Parsons, plus the defensive ability of Tyson Chandler and Rajon Rondo, can’t be discounted. Still, I’ll make it Houston in 6.

The 4-5 match-up between Portland and Memphis is intriguing, but the Trail Blazers were slowed late in the season by injuries to their top two shooting guards, Wesley Matthews and Arron Afflalo, and Memphis also suffered injuries down the stretch to guards Mike Conley and Tony Allen. The Grizzlies won all four meetings during the regular season, and their physical style with big men Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph usually translates well with the slower pace of the playoffs. I’m going with Memphis in 6.

The best opening round series in the West features the defending champion Spurs against Doc Rivers’ L.A. Clippers. San Antonio dropped from the No. 2 seed to 6th after a loss in the regular season finale, but this veteran team isn’t worried about winning on the road. Kawhi Leonard had a strong finish to the season, looking more like the player who was the MVP of the 2014 Finals, while ageless Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are also playing at a high level entering the playoffs. The Clippers are always dangerous with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and underrated center DeAndre Jordan, who would turn out to be one of the big prizes in this summer’s free agent class. But 6th man extraordinaire Jamal Crawford is just coming back from injury, and the Clips haven’t been getting much production from wing players J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes. I see the Spurs advancing in 6.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

As for the Eastern Conference, it should be pretty much chalk in round one, with the possible exception being the 4-5 match-up between Toronto and Washington. The Wizards have struggled for much of the season because of injuries to Nene and Bradley Beal, plus an on-going dispute between Marcin Gortat and head coach Randy Wittman over 4th quarter playing time, but I get the feeling their best basketball is still to come. Beal and John Wall have the speed to negate Toronto’s 1-2 punch of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, and I believe Washington’s frontline is superior to the Raptors. This one could go the full seven games, and who knows, maybe veteran Paul Pierce will validate the decision by Wizards’ management to bring him in with a series winning shot.

It’s the best time of the year for NBA fans, so get ready for an exciting ride.

3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

The Bulls recorded their first win of the preseason with Sunday night’s 105-91 win over the Raptors. Here are three takeaways:

We got a peek at Jim Boylen's regular-season rotation

We had a clue that Boylen was going to go with Tomas Satoransky as his starter after he chose to sit him with the starters in the Bulls third preseason game against the Indiana Pacers, and tonight helped further confirm this idea. Boylen stated before the game that he would be starting to roll out his regular season rotations, and we saw "Sato" start next to the regular Bulls starting group of Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and the returning Wendell Carter Jr.

On top of seeing the starting group, we got to see Thaddeus Young in his probable role as the sixth man, coming in for Carter to provide the Bulls with more of a small look where Markkanen acts as the center.

Markkanen was particularly effective on the glass against the smaller Raptors frontline sans Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam. Lauri collected a double-double, finishing with 15 points and 13 rebounds, including 4 offensive rebounds. 

Giving an even greater effort on the glass will push Markkanen closer to All-Star status and it is not out of the question as we have seen him raise his rebounding average every season. Games like Sunday night's show that all of the muscle Markkanen added this offseason is going to pay dividends in the 2019-20 NBA regular season and beyond, which will allow the Bulls to play smaller more often to get dynamic scorers like Coby White on the floor.

White came in as a substitute for Porter, giving the Bulls another small-ball lineup in which LaVine acts as the small forward next to him and Satoransky.

Satoransky was great, finishing with 12 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 turnovers in 21 minutes. Sato pushed the pace but also could sense the right time to pull the ball back out and run a play in the halfcourt.

In general, the Bulls trotted out more three-guard lineups in this game, and the size of big guards like Satoransky and Dunn help the Bulls blur the lines between wing and guard, mitigating some of the risks involved with not having a traditional wing on the floor.

On the flip side, the perimeter skills of a big man like Young allow the Bulls to play bigger lineups in which Young plays small forward next to two big men. In Sunday night's win over the Raptors, Young finished the game second on the Bulls in rebounds (7) and assists (3), while being in the right spot more times than not on D. 

With stretch-five Luke Kornet (2-7 from 3-point line vs Raptors), the gritty, playmaking Ryan Arcidiacono (3 assists, no turnovers), and rookie Daniel Gafford rounding out the rest of the new Bulls' Bench Mob", Boylen will have the ability to play many different ways, affording us a fair chance to see what Boylen is made of as an NBA head coach. He is already passing his first test of showing that he is open to change, with the Bulls shooting 49 3-pointers on Sunday night, keeping their promise of being more aggressive from deep.

The Zach LaVine All-Star push starts now 

Overall, Zach LaVine has not been shy about already being at an All-Star level of play, you just have to ask him.

LaVine came into Sunday night's game sixth in the league in preseason scoring, averaging 22.0 points per game through two contests, and he kept up that scoring onslaught in a big way. He finished the Bulls win over the Raptors with 26 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals in just 24 minutes of action. He finished the night with four turnovers as well, and while you would like to see the assist-to-turnover ratio improve, high turnover totals are just the name of the game for high-usage stars.

Besides, Boylen and co. likely would rather see LaVine collect some turnovers trying to make the extra pass—something the Bulls have committed to hard this preseason—rather than trying to iso and make a play for himself.

Notably, the LaVine-Markkanen pick-and-roll that figures to be a staple of the Bulls offense for a long time again made an appearance in this game, looking crisp at moments as defenses struggle with scrambling to Markkanen at the 3-point line or worrying more about LaVine's oftentimes dominant drives to the rim.

While it is encouraging to see LaVine score effortlessly, that is not a new development for Bulls fans. The true mark of improvement for LaVine will be his defense and playmaking, both of which looked good on Sunday night.

LaVine racked up two steals and showed an improved awareness and aggressiveness when prowling the passing lanes. What makes defense so huge for LaVine besides the fact that his effort-level sets the tone for the team is that he so often turns opponent turnovers into points in transition for Chicago.

The Bulls had 14 fastbreak points and 17 points off of turnovers in their win over the Raptors, with LaVine's efforts playing a large hand in the win. 

Coby White continues to score in bunches 

It has been stated many times how Coby White was more of a shooting guard in high school and only transitioned into being more a lead guard at North Carolina. And those natural scoring instincts have shown up time and time again in the NBA preseason, especially in transition. 

If you get White going towards the rim with a head of steam in transition, he will make it to the basket before the 24-second shot clock hits the 19-second mark, a remarkable display of his blazing speed.

Of course, everything is to be taken with a grain of salt in the NBA preseason, as we are often seeing White (and others) face off against a team's backups or even worse, players that won't even make an NBA roster. But what White has done well should play in the regular season too. He scored 18 points on 37.5% shooting from the field, including hitting 4 of his 12 attempts from 3-point range. White was 2-2 from the free throw line and finished with one assist and no turnovers. 

It looks like it will be a while before we see Coby White look like an NBA-level floor general but he is already playing like an uber-confident, spark plug shooting guard.

The Bulls can utilize White's scoring in the regular season knowing that even if his court vision isn't where they want it to be, his shoot-first mentality and propensity to keep the ball moving should result in lower turnover totals than your usual score-first point guard.

The long-awaited debut of the Bulls starting lineup, rusty Wendell Carter Jr. and all

The long-awaited debut of the Bulls starting lineup, rusty Wendell Carter Jr. and all

After getting a look at each point guard in the starting lineup this preseason, Jim Boylen finally got a look at what appears to be his starting lineup for Opening Night. 

Tomas Satoransky started as the point next to Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen, and Wendell Carter Jr. That group was down 10-7 when Carter subbed out at the 8:36 mark but looked better in later stints in the game. 

Carter was noticeably slow on his first step on his defense, specifically on plays where Raptors center Chris Boucher was able to use his speed and length advantage to finish at the rim. But he was solid on the glass, even chipping in on the offensive rebounding side of things, grabbing 3 offensive boards in the first half alone. 

Carter was clearly re-adjusting to the speed of NBA basketball and as play-by-play broadcaster Stacey King noted during the game, he "just doesn't have his legs underneath him." He was 1-6 from the floor, struggling to get lift as he went up for putback layups around the basket. 

That being said, he was decent, more so on the defensive side of the floor where he became more active as the game wore on.

In his 16-minutes stint, Carter posted 10 points, 7 rebounds, an assist and a block, while picking up 3 personal fouls. 

Outside of Carter's return stint, the Bulls new-look starting group looked solid and offers hope as we approach the start of the NBA regular season.