Matchup: No. 4 Chicago Bulls (48-34) vs. No. 5 Washington Wizards (44-38)
Season Series: Wizards won 2-1
Efficiency Rankings: Chicago (27th offense, 2nd defense), Washington (16th offense, 10th defense)
A Bulls-Wizards series may not entice the casual fan, but there are points of attraction despite the lack of established big names. You have Joakim Noah, Chicago's eccentric mastermind of a center, anchoring the NBA's second-ranked defense and making plays with his pinpoint passing. You have one of the best young backcourts in the league in Washington's John Wall and Bradley Beal, who are turning their promise into production. And you have a host of physical players on both teams willing to bang in the post and perhaps create some chippiness. What you don't have is a bona fide superstar to carry a series. That is, unless Noah, Wall or Beal plays the role of one.
The Case For The Bulls
You already know the Bulls' defense is good enough to win a series by itself, but Chicago's offense has been blossoming of late as it copes without Derrick Rose. The Bulls went 23-2 this season when scoring at least 100 points, something they did six times in their last 10 games. Like an angel sent from heaven, point guard D.J. Augustin arrived in Chicago in December and surprisingly sparked the offense after being waived by Toronto. Power forward Taj Gibson has also expanded his game while taking more minutes from Carlos Boozer, and Noah averaged career highs in points (12.6), rebounds (11.3) and assists (5.4).
Tom Thibodeau is deservedly in the running for Coach of the Year after overcoming the loss of Rose and the trade of two-time All-Star forward Luol Deng to lead Chicago to home-court advantage in the first round. And the Bulls showed last year that they can advance without Rose, beating the Nets in the first round with a Game 7 road victory.
The Case For The Wizards
The Wizards fulfilled their goal of ending a five-year playoff drought, putting Wall, the first pick in 2010, in the postseason for the first time. The front office has eyed the playoffs all season, making calculated moves to fortify the roster for a potential clash with a team like the Bulls. The Wizards traded for Marcin Gortat during the preseason, adding a veteran center capable of making an impact on both ends. They traded for Andre Miller at the deadline, getting the backup point guard they desperately needed, and signed veterans such as forwards Al Harrington and Drew Gooden to give them a splash of experience and grit.
But the Wizards' success ultimately hinges on the 23-year-old Wall and 20-year-old Beal. Last season, another celebrated young backcourt, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, broke through in its first opportunity on the big stage, helping the Warriors upset the Nuggets and take the Spurs to six games. Will Wall and Beal be able to pull off a similar feat?
Mike Dunleavy. The 12-year veteran is in the playoffs for only the third time. Will the 33-year-old get his first taste of the second round? The Bulls need all the offense they can get, and Dunleavy is capable of providing some. He's been hot lately, averaging 13 points on 50.7 percent from the field and 46.9 percent from three-point range in eight games this month. Getting Dunleavy involved against the Wizards could be the key to the Bulls' offense success. Chicago is 12-4 when the swingman hits at least three three-pointers.
Bulls in seven. What's a Bulls playoff series without a slugfest? There will be nights when Chicago will look like a legitimate threat to Miami. There will also be nights when Thibodeau's bunch looks like it doesn't belong in the playoffs, largely because of its offense. The Wizards are equally prone to uneven performances -- witness their blowout home loss to the Bulls two weeks ago. With two teams of relatively equal talent and motivation, this series should go the distance. Chicago gets the edge because of home-court advantage, experience and defensive prowess -- three key ingredients to a series victory.