The Eastern Conference semi-finals in the NBA playoffs are set, after Chicago upset Brooklyn in Game 7 of their first-round battle tonight, 99-93 on the road. We’ll recap a truly great win for the Bulls, and then look ahead to the Indiana-New York & Chicago-Miami matchups.
If I had told you at the start of Game 7 tonight that it would come down to a battle between Marco Bellinelli and Joe Johnson, my guess is you’d have gone with the latter. Instead, Johnson had a horrible shooting night, going 2-for-14 from the floor and scoring just six points, while Bellnelli popped in 24 for Chicago. It was the biggest difference between the two teams in a game that Chicago had in command halfway through and then hung on down the stretch.
The rest of Brooklyn’s combination came through nicely. Deron Williams and Brook Lopez had good games and Reggie Evans did his thing on the boards, with 13 rebounds. If you fit Johnson into that mix, it’s the same combination that Brooklyn used to win all season long and to survive must-win tests in Games 5 & 6 of this series.
Now that we’ve taken Johnson to task, let’s heap some glory on the Bulls. Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng didn’t play, with Deng having to get a spinal tap to test for meningitis. He’s questionable for Game 1 of the Miami series on Monday night and we certainly hope he’s okay in the bigger picture of life. On the basketball court, he was big shoes to fill and it’s frankly unbelievable that the Bulls could win a road Game 7 without either player. Joakim Noah, as he has all series, gutted it up while injured and played his best game, with 24 points and 14 rebounds.
It’s hard to overemphasize what a disaster this is for Brooklyn. I would think this would cost interim coach P.J. Carlesimo any chance of becoming the permanent boss, and deservedly so. When you can’t win a series where you have the best three players on the floor, along with the other team’s remaining talent dropping like flies, it’s safe to say you will not coach an NBA champion. And that’s what Brooklyn, with this core of talent needs to aspire to be. They also need a heavy dose of Chicago’s toughness, a virtue that’s earned the Bulls an unlikely trip to South Beach.
Now let’s shift gears and move into the second round…
I think we all know that the Bulls’ magic is going to come to an end here, with the question being whether they can push Miami as far as six games. If you look at each team’s statistical profile, it’s not a bad matchup for Chicago. Miami is a subpar rebounding team and Chicago—presuming Deng can play—has three players who clear the glass. Miami likes the perimeter game, and Chicago defends the three very well.
A lot of times statistical profiles can reveal edges that mainstream media opinion will overlook. Then there’s other times where mainstream opinion—in this case, the view that the Heat can simply give the ball to LeBron James and do most anything—is probably pretty close to being right. No team defense is going to stop King James right now. He’s scoring 25 ppg, and he’s also averaging seven assists per game. How can you rotate a defense to him when he finds the open man?
Miami didn’t look dominant in their first-round sweep of Milwaukee, with the badly undermanned Bucks competing into the third quarter of each game. But the Heat still have the game’s best player, they have a rested Dwayne Wade and between Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Mario Challmes, someone will heat up from outside. I know the Bulls have played the Heat tough over the years and that Chicago has no fear. It’s why I expect a dogfight in each game. But each and every time I think Miami is going to prevail. They’re too rested, and Chicago too wounded for this not to be a sweep.
This is simultaneously the most interesting and the most repulsive of the four second-round matchups, including the two Western Conference series previewed earlier. The most interesting, because I think it’s about the flip of a coin on who’s going to win. Repulsive, because a lot of that equality is based on mutual mediocrity, at least by championship standards. And thinking about one of these teams going to the conference finals when you compare them to teams in the West who are already home or soon will be, is just one more demonstration of the NBA’s competitive imbalance.
The matchup is a classic contrast of the Knicks shooting from downtown and the Pacers needing to go inside, of New York trying to win with offense and Indiana trying to win with defense. The Pacers are the league’s best in defensive efficiency and after spending five games trying to disprove that stat against Atlanta, Indiana finally buckled down and got serious on the defensive end in a Game 6 clincher. New York is third in the NBA in offensive efficiency, and they showed during their series win over Boston that they could also win when the games got ugly.
New York may be renowned for three-point shooting, but don’t confuse that with transition basketball, in the way Golden State tries to play. The Knicks are more of a half-court team. Carmelo Anthony did not play well in the last three games of the Celtics’ series and he’s now going to face an even better defensive team. J. R. Smith hasn’t played well since his suspension for Game 4. Melo is going to have to be able to give the ball up to the open shooter, or Indiana is going to force a lot of misses. And unlike Boston, the Pacers can rebound these misses. David West and Roy Hibbert lead a team that’s the best in the league at clearing the glass.
Where Indiana can have problems is handling the ball against pressure. The Knicks’ defense was tremendously active against Boston and created turnovers and they can do the same here, giving them the chance to beat the Pacer defense before it can get set up.
It all adds up to fascinating series. In the NBA commentary at the start of the playoffs, I had Indiana reaching the conference finals, and I won’t back down now. Let’s say Pacers in six. Although I really wish this was like a college football bowl game and both teams could end right here, rather than having to watch one of them play Miami.
The Indiana-New York series begins on Sunday at 3:30 PM ET the second part of an ABC doubleheader that starts with Memphis-Oklahoma City. Then on Monday, Chicago-Miami starts a TNT twinbill at 7 PM ET that’s followed by Golden State-San Antonio. NBA commentary at TheSportsNotebook will come back Tuesday after all four series openers are in the books.
FULL DISCLOSURE: On the picks, as in the Western Conference, I only went 2-2 in the first round. So yeah, I went .500 on my series picks in a league noted for its chalkiness and predictability.