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Preview: Bulls-Wizards Playoff Series

By Benjy Lipsman in News on Apr 20, 2014 8:30PM

Photo credit:Dane Olsen

The Bulls open the postseason this evening, playing host to the Washington Wizards in the opening round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. The Bulls' loss to Charlotte in Wednesday's regular season finale cemented their place as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and earned a first round date with the fifth seed Wizards.

On paper, this should be the most competitive first round series of the 2014 playoffs, but that means little when the players hit the floor. The Bulls are a proud team, and, after a season of adversity, are looking to prove just how much heart they have.

The Bulls lost superstar Derrick Rose to yet another season-ending knee injury ten games into the season. Bulls management chose to trade All-Star Luol Deng after failing to reach an fiscally friendly extension.

Despite those setbacks, though, the Bulls finished the season 48-34, and had an Eastern Conference best 36 wins since January 1. While Washington won two of three during the regular season, both wins came in the aftermath of the Luol Deng trade as the team was still figuring out new roles and coach Tom Thibodeau was still adjusting his rotation. Now, the Bulls are set for the playoffs, with everybody on the team healthy and coming off an 8-2 run to close out the season.

Washington, a young team on the rise, completed a 44-38 campaign to earn their first trip to the playoffs since the 2007-08 season. They are led by fourth year point guard John Wall, who averaged 19.3 points a night to go along with 8.8 assists. At shooting guard, the Wizards have Bradley Beal, who averaged over 17 points a game in the regular season. Down low, Nene and Marcin Gortat play play power forward and center respectively. Trevor Ariza plays small forward for Washington. Like the Bulls, Washington featured a balanced scoring attack: while no player averages over 20 points a game, five players average more than 12.

The Bulls line-up looks a little different from when the season began, as they lost their top two scorers after Derrick Rose's injury and Deng's trade. The Bulls signed point guard D.J. Augustine, who'd been cut by the Toronto Raptors after 10 games, and he ended up leading the Bulls in scoring at 14.9 points per game in 61 games and offering an offensive counter to the more defense-oriented Kirk Hinrich.

Also shoring up the Bulls stingy defense was shooting guard Jimmy Butler, who proved in last year's playoffs he deserved to start and helped make Deng expendable. "Jimmy Buckets" averaged 13.1 points per game, almost 5 rebound and 1.9 steals (4th in the NBA).

Center Joakim Noah had his best season as a pro, dishing 5.2 assists in addition to grabbing 11.3 boards and scoring 12.6 points a night. At power forward, Carlos Boozer continued to start and averaged 13.7 points per game. And while Boozer was often an early offensive spark, he gave way to Taj Gibson's better overall game later on in games.

While Taj only started eight games to Boozer's 76 starts, he averaged more minutes played while racking up 13 points, 6.8 rebounds and playing top defense. Newcomer Mike Dunleavy stepped into a starting role with the departure of Luol Deng, and he averaged 11.3 points while helping to extend the Bulls outside shooting range. A 12-year veteran, this will be Dunleavy's first playoff experience in the NBA.

The Bulls appear to match up well at most positions against Washington. Wall is the one clear edge for the Wizards on the court—although Hinrich's defense and knowledge of his former protege (Hinrich played was the Wiz during Wall's rookie season) should help the Bulls slow down their top player.

Beal and Butler should be an interesting match-up to watch as the two young, emerging players battle. While Washington's big men are impressive, the Bulls three headed monster of Noah, Boozer and Gibson will outplay Washington's Gortat, Nene and Trevor Booker. Trevor Ariza could pose problems if he gets hot from downtown, but Dunleavy is also capable to hitting the three.

The Bulls' biggest weakness is perhaps their short rotation, with Thibs' really only giving seven players meaningful minutes—the starters plus Gibson and Augustine. They did add some veterans as insurance in recent weeks, but don't expect to see them on court much unless an injury requires it. Washington has veterans like Martell Webster, Al Harrington and Andre Miller on their bench.

In leading the Bulls to the top record in the east twice, and coaching teams to impressive showings even without Derrick Rose on the court demonstrates his coaching mastery, and in the playoffs defense matters even more than the regular season. Washington's coach, Randy Wittman, appears to be on the hot seat.

In his second season as coach, Wittman succeeded in meeting owner Ted Leonsis' edict of "playoffs or else," but with a contract that expires at season's end, he's clearly coaching for his job and a first round exit won't help.

With a team that has learned to persevere through countless hurdles, and a roster that fully buys into Thibs' defensive, team-first game plan. They're also playoff tested, battling against the Miami Heat in recent years and a brutal first round series against Brooklyn a year ago. Against a team making the playoffs for the first time in six years, the Bulls look poised to dispatch Washington in the first round.

We think these two teams' final meeting, a Bulls 96-78 victory that saw them jump out to a 52-26 halftime lead, is more indicative of where these teams are today. The Bulls won't breeze through this series, but they'll win it and advance.

Prediction: Bulls in 6