Is it even worth bringing up Derrick Rose’s name?
To quote the man himself: “Only God knows.”
Heaven forbid we should get some clarity out of the former MVP, who has been practicing with the team for more than a month and keeping everyone on edge – to the point of frustration – with the waiting game surrounding his return. If he decides to give it a go in Game 1, it will be the one-year anniversary of the very same game – the first one of the playoffs – in which Rose suffered his torn ACL last season.
And it bears mentioning that coach Tom Thibodeau should have yanked him from the game at that point, as the Bulls were firmly in control.
But more on Thibs below.
For now, let’s look at the five key factors in this series:
1. Who has the bigger advantage: The Nets’ backcourt or the Bulls’ frontcourt?
If Reggie Evans is going to be able to produce 20-25 rebounds per game — and don’t underestimate his ability to do so — he could be the difference-maker in the series. Will Carlos Boozer – who has had a “please don’t amnesty me” season – let himself get pushed around like that? Brook Lopez is the better offensive player of the two centers, but he is going up against a superb defensive center in Joakim Noah who has the capability to neutralize both him and Andray Blatche. One thing is certain, if foul trouble comes into play, the Nets have more depth with Kris Humphries and Mirza Teletovic.
The Nets have the distinct advantage at both guard spots. Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson are going to be Chicago’s primary playmakers (need we mention Rose again?). Deron Williams is coming into the playoffs off a particularly strong stretch of games – with some saying he hasn’t looked this good since his Utah days. Would Thibodeau consider using Jimmy Butler as the primary defender against D-Will? With Gerald Wallace’s confidence shot, there is little use for wasting Butler and his defensive abilities on a guy who is afraid to shoot the ball.
And then there is Robinson, the X-factor. If he is putting up 20-plus points per game, which is no longer unusual for him, that will neutralize Williams’ offensive output. This could be quite the chess match — and you can be certain it will be physical (the Bulls always plays that way) and dirty (Evans is often named as the NBA’s dirtiest player by his peers.)
At shooting guard, Brooklyn’s Joe Johnson has had a subpar season but has the size and skills to be effective in the postseason, where the pace slows down. He is way too big for Richard Hamilton, who may disappear in this series. Don’t be surprised to see Butler getting most of the minutes at shooting guard for the Bulls.
2. Do the Nets have enough experience and mental toughness to deal with the Bulls?
This is not the first rodeo for the majority of Chicago’s core.
Noah, Luol Deng, Boozer and Taj Gibson were all part of the run to the Eastern Conference finals two years ago. Richard Hamilton and Nazr Mohammed have played on championship teams. Hinrich has been around the block. Given their commitment to defense and experience, don’t expect this group to rattle.
The same cannot be said for many of the Nets. Brook Lopez, whose rebounding still isn’t up to par for a 7-footer, never has played in the postseason. Neither has MarShon Brooks. Andray Blatche, whose court presence has always been a question mark, has played in eight postseason games. Kris Humphries has played in nine and Gerald Wallace 10 in the last nine years.
The Nets do have some playoff experience in Williams and Joe Johnson and some sage veteran voices in Evans, Jerry Stackhouse and former Bull C.J. Watson. It is imperative that Brooklyn does not get caught up in the pomp and circumstance of the playoffs – especially in the opener at home – and play the game, rather than the score or the clock or the crowd. Because Chicago will only play the game, and likely with much more force.
3. If the Nets win the series, does P.J. Carlesimo keep his job?
An interesting question. If they lose the series, he is definitely out. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov declared early in the season that “our plan is maybe the conference finals.” That was when Avery Johnson was still coaching and Williams was not listening. Carlesimo did a very nice job as interim coach, guiding the Nets to a 35-19 finish and homecourt advantage in the first round – which puts him on the hook to win this series with no excuses against a banged-up opponent.
But there is a school of thought that says Carlesimo is out no matter what happens – and maybe his boss, too. Despite moving to Brooklyn, opening a glistening new arena and creating a real rivalry with the Knicks, the Nets are still second-class citizens in Noo Yawk. Prokhorov has bottomless pockets and knows that the only way to upstage the Knicks is to bring in big names. GM Billy King failed to produce Dwight Howard and may be on thin ice. Prokhorov may be looking to lure Phil Jackson, and the promise of the dual role of GM and coach could be the way to entice him. Jeff Van Gundy’s name has been bantered about, too.
Keep in mind that winning one series is as far as Carlesimo and the Nets will go, because Miami will be waiting in the conference semifinals. That’s one round short of Prokhorov’s somewhat optimistic declaration. Perhaps the owner will throw Carlesimo a bone and promise him an assistant’s position no matter who becomes coach, a la Kaleb Canales in Portland.
4. If the Bulls lose the series, does Tom Thibodeau keep his job?
On first blush, it may sound like sacrilege to even consider someone other than Thibodeau guiding this group. He is perhaps the best defensive mind in the game today, is 157-73 in three seasons, twice directing the Bulls to the NBA’s best record and somehow getting this group into the playoffs without a minute from Derrick Rose. He was Coach of the Year in 2011, runner-up last year and will definitely get some votes this year.
But let’s look at the other side of it. Rose’s injury occurred when Thibodeau left him on the floor even though the Bulls held a 12-point lead and the ball with 82 seconds to play. He has added to the ongoing confusion and frustration regarding the potential return of Rose by saying several times that the superstar point guard was “close.” Joakim Noah called Thibodeau’s style a “dictatorship” and at one point this season turned to the coach and said, “Thibs, you’ve got to f***ing relax.” He finally was given a contract extension in October, then waited until April to sign it. And while Chicago’s commitment to defense is unmatched, its offense was predictable with Rose and is ineffective without him.
Thibodeau is due $18 million over the next four years. Put that together with owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s frugal approach and the built-in excuse of Rose’s absence, and the coach is likely safe even with a first-round exit. But if the Bulls go out meekly in four or five games, or their prehistoric offense averages something like 83 points for the series, the whispers that the Bulls need another voice will grow louder. And remember: Thibs is the guy who has repeatedly said since Rose went down that the Bulls “have enough to win.”
5. Can the Nets get the tempo more to their liking?
Look at the season series and you will see that all the games were in the 80s and 90s. The Bulls imposed their will and won three of four, even when shorthanded. The Nets were most effective when they used their bully ball lineup to out-physical most opponents. But they won’t be able to do that against these Bulls, who beat the crap out of the Miami Heat on the night they ended their 27-game victory streak.
A huge key for the Nets will be creating transition opportunities. If this becomes a matchup of half-court sets, the Bulls are masters at getting the ball out of the hands of a team’s best player – in this case, Williams – and making somebody else take the shot.
SHERIDAN: Bulls in 7.
HUBBARD: Bulls in 6.
HEISLER: Bulls in 6.
BERNUCCA: Nets in 7.
HAMILTON: Bulls in 6.
PERKINS: Bulls in 7.
SCHAYES: Nets in 6.
ANDY KAMENETZKY: Bulls in 7.
BRIAN KAMENETZKY: Nets in 6.
ZAGORIA: Nets in 7.
PARK: Nets in 6.