This is easily one of the most evenly matched and competitive series we will see in Round 1 of the 2013 Playoffs. For the Nets, this will be the first (of many) playoff series played at their new home in Brooklyn. You know that Jay-Z and owner Mikhail Prokhorov will stop at nothing to make sure their team puts on a show. A lot of fascinating subplots for Chicago, as well. Can they contain a rejuvenated Deron Williams? How will they respond to last year’s First Round upset to the Philadelphia 76ers? And of course, the million dollar question: will we see Derrick Rose after all?
Brooklyn Nets Breakdown
Biggest Strength: Star Power
Of course, I’m referring to 2013 All-Star Center Brook Lopez and usually-a-perennial-All-Star Deron Williams. After a difficult first half of the season, D-Will has returned to becoming one of the league’s elite point guards that we have grown accustomed to seeing. Meanwhile, Lopez has propelled himself into one of the league’s best big men, doing his best to back up Shaq’s labeling of him as the league’s best center. Joakim Noah is very well equipped defensively to contain Lopez, but the Bulls should not have an answer for D-Will at his best. Kirk Hinrich is a decent defender at the point, but the Bulls will be at D-Will’s mercy whenever Hinrich’s backup, 5’7” Nate Robinson, is defending him. I suspect that the Bulls will put either Luol Deng or at times, Jimmy Butler, in the game to try to contain Williams. Nevertheless, I see a huge series coming from D-Will – especially in a year he has been downgraded from elite stardom status in the eyes of many.
Biggest Weakness: Outside Shooting
Despite having one of the best scoring backcourts in the NBA in Williams and Joe Johnson, the Nets’ offensive attack is relatively limited by their lack of perimeter shooters. C.J. Watson and Marshon Brooks can occasionally get hot, but the rest of the team is full of mediocre shooters. As a result, it is difficult for the team to spread the floor and give Lopez enough room to operate in the paint. In order to compensate, Williams and Johnson will have to heat up from the outside for the Nets to steal four games from a tough defensive squad like Chicago.
X-Factor: Reggie Evans
Evans is going to be a huge key for Brooklyn. Can he sustain the rebounding magic he has done all year? If so, he can give the Nets as much of a boost as he provided the Clippers in last year’s playoffs vs. Memphis’s big team. With the likes of Noah and Carlos Boozer patrolling the paint, they will need Evans to be heavily active on the glass. Evans, along with Humphries, has helped the Nets become one of the league’s best rebounding teams – ranking 2nd in the league in Rebound Rate.
Chicago Bulls Breakdown
Biggest Strength: Low Post Defense
Chicago is one of the toughest teams to score on in the paint – not just because of pure defensive skill, but toughness as well. At all times on the floor, you will see some combination of Noah, Boozer, and Taj Gibson. Boozer is not a great one-on-one defender, but Noah is one of the best off-the-ball defenders that has been great at weak side help all season long. Also, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler will do their best to contain perimeter penetration, and make the lives of the frontcourt defenders easier. If D-Will is going to make several trips to the hoop, he is going to take a serious beating along with them. Just ask LeBron.
Biggest Weakness: Scoring
We all know that the Bulls are a great defensive team under Tom Thibodeau’s legendary defensive schemes. But do they have enough home run hitters? With Rip Hamilton being gimpy all season long, Luol Deng is going to have to carry a huge offensive load for this team. They will also have to rely on Nate Robinson giving them a spark off the bench, something he is well capable of doing on any given night. But over the course of a seven game series, it’s going to be tough for the Bulls to score consistently.
X-Factor: Derrick Rose
Easily, D-Rose’s presence on the court – even if only a few minutes – could propel the Bulls past the first round. The elephant in the room all season long has been when he would be ready to play. I think he will only feel the need to return if his team needs a lift, a scenario that I think is extremely likely. Keeping him out of the regular season is one thing, but I think he won’t be able to help himself if he thinks his team needs him in the playoffs.
Prediction: Bulls in 7
Last year vs. the 76ers, Rose was in the Bulls lineup and, prior to his disastrous ACL injury, not one soul thought they would get upset by Philadelphia. This year, they are prepared to move forward without him, and Tom Thibodeau has strategized accordingly. However, I do predict that Rose will return for the Bulls’ first home game to give his team, and the city of Chicago, an inspirational lift. He most likely won’t produce All-Star caliber numbers that we’ve seen in the past, but his presence alone can will his team to a first round victory.
This will be a very evenly matched series. Both teams are capable of scoring in transition and in the half court – most conspicuously in the latter (both teams rank in the bottom 5 in Pace Factor). The Nets’ first playoff season as a Brooklyn franchise should be entertaining, but Chicago will be a tough out for them – especially if Rose comes back.