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Why playoff seeding matters for Derrick Rose and the Bulls

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Why playoff seeding matters for Derrick Rose and the Bulls

Joakim Noah, unofficial team spokesman for the pulse of the Bulls locker room, swears they don't care where they're seeded in the playoffs. His head coach agrees. Bring on LeBron James and the piping-hot Cavaliers, Noah genuinely declares. The Bulls can beat anybody, All-Star guard Jimmy Butler proudly admits.

The Bulls' (over-)confidence isn't entirely unfounded. When healthy their starting lineup includes two 2015 All-Stars, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and the 2012 league MVP. 23-year-old Rookie of the Year candidate Nikola Mirotic leads a bench with as much offensive firepower as Tom Thibodeau has had since taking over. They've got a top-five head coach, playoff experience to boot and, with the addition of Pau Gasol, a player who hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy five years ago. Of the teams with the 10 best records in the NBA (the Bulls own the 11th), they have at least one win against all but one of them.

With two games and three days remaining in the regular season, the Bulls are tied with Toronto for the third best record in the East. By way of the Raptors winning the Atlantic Division, the Bulls are currently slotted in the No. 4 seed and would need to finish with a better record than the Raptors  - not a tie - to earn the No. 3 seed.

Much of the discussion regarding the Bulls and playoff seeding has stemmed from the thought of avoiding LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers as long as possible. Since James returned from a two-week hiatus in January the Cavaliers, locked in to the No. 2 seed, have the East's best record and, despite Kevin Love's and Kyrie Irving's lack of playoff experience, are the favorites to advance to the NBA Finals. In that sense the Bulls should want to avoid James and the favorites (and the No. 3 seed) as long as possible, which our own Mark Schanowski opined last month. That also assumes, however, that the Bulls are guaranteed a second-round opponent. That's where seeding comes into play.

Barring unforeseen circumstances in the final three days, the Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks will finish 5th and 6th in the East, respectively (the Bucks have clinched the No. 6 seed). The Bulls took three of four from the Bucks this season, losing their most recent matchup in Milwaukee but otherwise owning the series, including a 46-point outing from Pau Gasol in January. They split four games with Washington, with the regular season matchups failing to create as much buzz as the preseason fiasco between Paul Pierce and Joakim Noah did. Still, there's bad blood between the two teams, to be sure. Ask Nene.

[RELATED: Derrick Rose believes the best is yet to come]

But before the Bulls can worry about when they'll face James and the Cavaliers, they need to get out of the first round. Owning home court advantage in that first round - which they'll clinch with wins in one of their last two games, or one Wizards loss - will make that an easier task, but last year's five-game loss to fifth-seeded Washington proved it's not everything.

The Wizards, who will play the No. 4 seed, have been on a roller coaster in 2015 under Randy Wittman, losing 10 of 12 between February and March that dropped them to where they are now. Since the All-Star break, when their brief tailspin began, they're 25th in the NBA in offensive efficiency. Losing Trevor Ariza to free agency this offseason (Houston) has proved to be a thorn in the side of a team that a year ago averaged nearly 101 points per game; this year they're down to 98.3 points per game and, despite the continued improvement of John Wall and Marcin Gortat, have taken a step back after beating the Bulls and taking the top-seeded Pacers to six games last season.

But Wittman's group still has plenty going for them heading into the postseason. Their calling card, defense, has been as good as ever; the Wizards rank fifth in the NBA in defensive efficiency, Bradley Beal overcame yet another injury scare with his leg and has averaged better than 19 points per game in his last seven, and they replaced Ariza with Paul Pierce, specifically for his playoff experience (148 playoff games and a title in 2008).

As proven last year, the Wizards match up perfectly with the Bulls. They're third in the NBA in defensive rebound percentage, with an inside combination of Gortat and Nene that can match the physicality of Gasol and Joakim Noah. Though they lost Trevor Booker in free agency, Kris Humphries and Kevin Seraphin have proven to be viable replacements inside off the bench. Wall leads the Eastern Conference in assists per game and can give Derrick Rose problems with his length, Beal has improved his shooting efficiency and the aforementioned Pierce gives the Wizards the same championship pedigree Gasol is hoping to provide the Bulls.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up for the playoffs, Bulls fans!]

Waiting for the No. 3 seed in the playoffs is a Bucks team that made a financial decision at the trade deadline to deal borderline All-Star Brandon Knight to Phoenix in a three-team deal that netted them Michael Carter-Williams, along with Tyler Ennis and Miles Plumlee. The Bucks, owners of the NBA's worst record a year ago, have been the East's biggest surprise, especially considering they lost Rookie of the Year frontrunner Jabari Parker to an ACL injury in January.

But while the deadline trade was a step forward for the future - the Bucks likely would have lost Knight this offseason for nothing - they took a step back in 2015. Since that trade, the Bucks are 27th in offensive efficiency (97.2) and fifth in defensive efficiency (99.7), a step down from their pre-trade defensive rating of 99.3, third in the NBA; before the trade the Bucks were 17th in offensive efficiency (102.1). The Bucks have gone 10-17 since making that trade, and despite a career year from Khris Middleton and the continued improvement of Giannis Antetokounmpo, just aren't the same team. Knight was the catalyst for the offense and a plus-defender.

Furthermore, the Bulls match up well with the Bucks. Zaza Pachulia has proven to be a capable center in place of the waived Larry Sanders, but Pau Gasol averaged 24.3 points on 55 percent shooting and 13.3 rebounds in four games against Milwaukee, his highest point total against an opponent he faced more than once. Seven games against Pachulia is drastically different than seven games against Gortat. Carter-Williams, Middleton and the Greek Freak provide one of the longer backcourts in the NBA defensively, but if the Bulls are going to get into low-scoring games they'd much rather do it against a team that's topped the 100-point total six times in their last 27 games (Milwaukee) than one that beat them at that game a year ago in the playoffs (Washington).

The point is, the Bulls will need to go through LeBron James at some point this postseason to reach the Finals. That was the case in 2010, 2011 and 2013, and all three times they failed to dethrone King James. But in order to have that chance in 2015 as Noah so badly wants, they need to get there first. This isn't an infallible Bulls team; losses to the Kings, Jazz, Magic (twice), Lakers and Hornets have proven as much. Their best course of action is to grab the No. 3 seed - with a little help from the Raptors - and set themselves up with an easier first-round opponent, then deal with the Cavaliers in Round 2. Getting by the Wizards and the woefully under-appreciated top-seeded Hawks is a tall order for a Bulls team still dealing with chemistry issues less than a week away from the postseason, should they remain in fourth place.

A healthy Bulls team should make it out of the first round, whether it's against the Wizards or Bucks.

Still, though they may not want to admit it, seeding matters for the Bulls.

Patrick Beverley tells Wojnarowski: 'Vinny Del Negro, he told me I didn't play defense'

Patrick Beverley tells Wojnarowski: 'Vinny Del Negro, he told me I didn't play defense'

Patrick Beverley's path to the NBA was an intriguing one, a true story of perseverance featuring many twists and turns. For those who haven't closely followed Beverley's career, the Chicago native and current Los Angeles Clipper had a three-year career overseas before he really caught on in the NBA, landing a multi-year deal with the Houston Rockets in 2013. Before landing with the Rockets, Beverley played for Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk (Ukraine), Olympiacos Piraeus (Greece), Spartak St. Petersburg (Russia) before landing in Houston but a lesser-known fact is that Beverley actually spent time practicing with the Bulls within the first two years of his overseas basketball career. 

On Saturday's episode of "The Woj Pod" hosted by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, Beverley discussed the importance of glue guys, Kris Dunn's season and much more. One of the more interesting tidbits was the aforementioned workouts with the Bulls. Beverley responded to a Woj question about if he could've played with the Bulls had things went differently earlier in his career:

I worked in the summertime with the Bulls, I don't know, two-three years in a row, Vinny Del Negro, he told me I didn't play defense...

Beverley elicited laughter from the crowd but he is clearly (and some would say rightfully) still upset by those who didn't give him an opportunity along the way. He went on to say that there is a "dynamic that fans don't know" and "can only assume." In the interview, Beverley didn't give a specific year but he says "two-three years" and clearly states that Vinny Del Negro was the head coach, meaning that he likely scrimmaged with the Bulls at points during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons.

When you take a closer look at those rosters, the possible matchups Beverley had become incredibly interesting to think about. The 2009 Bulls had nine players scoring in double figures — and a 10th scoring 9.9 points per game in Kirk Hinrich — and the 2010 Bulls had six players scoring in double figures.

Beverley could've had matchups against Larry Hughes (12,0 PPG in '09), John Salmons (career-high 18.3 PPG in '09), Ben Gordon (20.7 PPG in '09), or even Derrick Rose (18.7 PPG from 2008-10). Out of that group, Gordon and Rose specifically, can make any defender look bad on their best day, so maybe Del Negro's mistake wasn't as egregious as it appears now. Either way, Beverley certainly hasn't forgotten the ordeal. 

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Derrick Jones Jr. takes down Aaron Gordon in an all-time great NBA Dunk Contest

Derrick Jones Jr. takes down Aaron Gordon in an all-time great NBA Dunk Contest

Ask anyone from Chicago around All-Star weekend, and you'll quickly learn the city breeds tough, gritty and relentless basketball.

Apparently, it also breeds controversial dunk contests.

Thirty-two years after Michael Jordan bested Dominique Wilkins in a contest at the Old Chicago Stadium that many agree saw a healthy heaping of home-cooking on the menu, Derrick Jones Jr. topped Aaron Gordon in an affair that sent shockwaves through the NBA universe. Here's the rundown:

Highlights from regulation

There was a special feeling about this one from the very beginning.

Perhaps white men can jump:

 

 

Dwight busted out the cape (again) — and tributed Kobe along the way:

 

Aaron Gordon at one point rattled off five 50s in a row:

 

The finish

In the end, it all came down to Gordon and Jones, who duked out a dunk-off that featured some absolute haymakers:

 

It was raucous fun, truly. But the controversy came at the finish. Jones' final dunk was an attempted reprisal of Julius Erving's famous free-throw line dunk (re-popularized by Jordan, partly in that aforementioned '88 contest), which registered a 48. Gordon then pulled out the 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall for an improvised leapfrog that nearly tore the roof down.

 

"It was a great decision for him to do that. Everybody knows Tacko's a fan favorite," Jones said. "I knew it was going to get the crowd hyped."

"He (Fall) was a little bit nervous. He was like 'I got faith in you.' I was like, 'I appreciate it,'" Gordon said.

That dunk, though, garnered only a 47 from the judges. Game, set, match: Jones. Boos cascaded from the rafters.

The reaction

That sentiment carried over into the postgame presser.

"What are we doing here?" Gordon bemoaned to assorted media before even taking his seat at the podium. "Jumping over somebody 7-foot-5 and dunking is no easy feat. What did I get, like a 47? Come on, man. What are we doing?"

All fair questions. All fair points.

"I don't even know who gave me the 9s. I'm going to find them," he added with a laugh. "Trust me, I'm going to find them tonight.

Dwyane Wade, Scottie Pippen and Chadwick Boseman... Look out.

Gordon did give Jones his due, calling him a "leaper" and "great dunker." Still, this appears to be the final contest of Gordon's career.

"It's a wrap, bro. It's a wrap. I feel like I should have two trophies," Gordon said, alluding to his defeat at the hands of Zach LaVine in 2016. "My next goal is going to be trying to win the 3-point contest."

Jones, meanwhile, contested the premise that Gordon was robbed at all.

"When I got that 48, it was tough because that was a dunk that I was doing since high school and I know that's 50-worthy. There's no way I should have got a 48," Jones said. "He clipped Tacko's head when he did that dunk, so I knew they couldn't have gave him a 50 for that one. I would have respected it if they gave him another 48, so we can go again."

In that event, Jones said he would have been ready.

"I just turned 23, I got legs for days," Jones said. Jones' birthday was the night of the contest, and he said he had dunks planned for as long as the judges allowed them to.

And though Jones hasn't yet thought about where this dunk contest ranks in the history of ones before, he's ready for the next challenge.

"Whoever want to step out there. I don't know. I'm not naming no names. I don't want to call nobody out, but whoever want to step out in front of me, I'm there. I'm not going to shy away from nobody."

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