The Chicago Bulls may be the team no one wants to play this postseason.
Tom Thibodeau’s team walked into the Barclays Center on Monday night following their game 1 thrashing on Saturday in which Deron Williams did pretty much whatever he wanted en route to a 22 point, 7 assist performance and made it clear this series would have to be played on their terms. Letting Williams have a repeat performance wasn’t an option for Chicago.
The Bulls came out in game 2 and defensively put a lid on Williams denying him easy shots and a path to the basket. The gold medal winner and former All-Star was shut down from a scoring perspective, finishing with 8 points and 10 assists. But the biggest difference wasn’t amongst players in the backcourt believe it or not.
The Nets dominated Chicago in the paint in game 1, outscoring the Bulls 56-36 in the painted area for the night. But Joakim Noah was only able to lace up for 13 minutes on Saturday compared to 25.5 minutes on Monday. In those 25 minutes, Noah managed a crucial 11 points and 10 rebounds with two blocked shots that helped Chicago outscore the Nets 42-30 in the paint.
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The rebounding edge went the way of the Bulls in game 2 and the Nets in game 1, a perfect illustration of the see-saw battle that has been going on between these two all season. Chicago got their way in game 2, turning it into a defensive battle and putting physicality at a premium.
As long as Noah gets his minutes, this is the kind of game the Bulls want and almost no one else in the Eastern Conference can afford to play with them. Against the top four seeds in the East, Chicago went 10-6 during the course of regular season. Brooklyn can hang physically as can Indiana, who is the only team seeded above Chicago in the standings to have won their season series against the Bulls. Against New York and Miami, however, the Bulls went 6-2 and have shown how a good physical game can disrupt those teams’ ability to run their offense.
Luckily for Chicago, they wouldn’t have to face Indiana unless they managed to get by Brooklyn and presumably Miami, who they split their season series with and showed they can hang with by ending the Heat’s historic 27 game winning streak. Brooklyn is all that stands between the rest of the Eastern Conference and the daunting task of facing one of the most experienced teams in the playoffs and possibly one of the most motivated underdog teams of the last decade.
The Bulls have overcome not having their superstar on the floor this season, they have overcome injuries to the entire squad, a general lack of depth and teams that are clearly better offensive teams than them by doing the little things right. Whether or not they can make a run at the Eastern Conference Finals will serve as a testament to how far strategy can go against talent.
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The Bulls return home now having split the opening two games just as they would have liked. The Nets failed to beat them at the United Center this season and will take a fairly inexperienced team into one of basketball’s biggest stadiums and play in front of one of it’s most boisterous and critical crowds. The game 2 victory will have proven massive if the Bulls come away from these two home games with a 3-1 lead, but it likely won’t happen without more big things from Noah in the paint.