NBA 1st Round Preview: Chicago-Philadelphia

The Chicago Bulls-Philadelphia 76ers playoff matchup is one that could have been reasonably anticipated back in early February, but no one would have been thinking first round. At the time the 76ers looked like the best team in the Atlantic Division by a lot and a viable threat to at least put a scare into the Bulls if the teams were to meet in the second round. Instead it’s a Philly team that nearly played its way out of the postseason altogether that comes to the Windy City on Saturday afternoon to start the 1-8 matchup on the Eastern Conference side of the draw. TheSportsNotebook previews the Bulls-Sixers series…

Chicago has been the precise opposite of Philadelphia, steady throughout the year. The Bulls pulled out a miracle win against the Lakers in the Christmas Day opener, won seven of their first eight and held steady as the top team in the East all year. That’s even with getting just 39 games from Derrick Rose and 28 games from Rip Hamilton, both of whom are set to play in the postseason, even though their actual health remains a significant question. When Rose has played, he’s averaged 22 ppg, while Hamilton has kicked in 12. Rose also sets the table for the rest of the offense, averaging eight assists, which brings to light the question of whether a team can win a title when its distributor is also its go-to player. You can cite Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s, but in the early part of that decade Magic set up Kareem and in the 1987-88 title teams…well, Magic is Magic. How realistic is it to use that as model for any team and player, even one like the Bulls and Rose?

The Bulls are tough on the frontline, with Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah all being respectable scorers, decent rebounders and tough defenders. Nothing will come easy inside for the 76ers in this series. And when you consider that Philly is a mediocre 17th in the league in rebounding, while Chicago is the league’s best, it means we can expect to see a lot of Bulls’ put-backs and a Philly offense that will produce more one-and-dones than anything this side of Kentucky.

Philly’s rebounding woes have undermined what’s been a very good team defense all year. The Sixers rank in the league’s elite on the defensive side of the floor, right up there with the Bulls, Heat and Celtics. Like the Celts though, the Sixers are less than effective at rebounding the misses they force. It’s also tough to see Philadelphia really making anything happen in the backcourt. Jrue Holiday is a good young point guard, able to score and dish, but he’s nowhere near Rose’s class. Lou Williams gives instant offense off the bench, averaging 15 ppg, but Evan Turner has not yet lived up to the potential most scouts saw in him and led Philly to make him the #2 overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft. The Sixers’ best offensive threats besides Williams are at forward, with Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand, with center Spencer Hawes mixing in some contributions.

The problem with Philly needing the frontcourt to score is that this plays right into Chicago’s defensive strength and an underdog looking for an upset needs to provide a contrast in style to the favorite, not go on strength-on-strength. If the Sixers had a three-point shooter, it could open some things up, but nobody is really consistent from beyond the arc.

Having said all that…while expecting Philadelphia to make a run at winning the series is completely unrealistic, it’s certainly reasonable to expect them to be competitive in every game. Both teams play at a deliberate pace and the defensive orientation of each will invite good games. Philly played competitively against Miami in last year’s first round and after they way the Sixers won four in a row at the end of the year to prevent a complete collapse, I look for them to bring a strong effort. Furthermore, I don’t like the feel this Chicago team has. Rose’s health is too uncertain, as is Hamilton’s. Given that I think Philadelphia definitely wins one game and perhaps even two. And for those who like to bet, this series could provide interesting value on the underdog against the spread and the Under on the total. On that Al Michaels-esque note, I’ll sign off with an official pick of Chicago in five, all games close.