Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose, Keith Bogans

How they can win it all: The Chicago Bulls

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Coming into this season, the Heat, The Lakers, and The Celtics were supposed to rule the NBA. After 82 games, the Chicago Bulls are coming into the playoffs with the best record in the league. They don’t have as much championship experience as some of the other top contenders, but they’re talented, young, hungry, and ready to bring a title back to Chicago. Here’s why they can win it all:

1. Defense:

The Chicago Bulls are the best defensive team in the league. They hold teams to 97.3 points per 100 possessions, the best mark in the league. They hold their opponents to the lowest three-point percentage in the league. Only Orlando allows a lower proportion of offensive rebounds. They rank #3 in the league in blocks, steals, and charges taken per 100 possessions. They rarely commit defensive fouls. They are a defensive powerhouse.

The Bulls don’t have one dominant defensive force like Dwight Howard or Kevin Garnett, but they have an absolute defensive mastermind on the sidelines and a plethora of athletic and aggressive defensive players who can execute Thibodeau’s defensive rotations perfectly. They fly around screens. They trap ball-handlers. They close out the three-point line without selling out. They collapse in the paint and load up the strong-side while still being able to recover. They play defense. They love defense. Their 2nd unit is even more dominant defensively than their starting unit. They live to break the wills of their opponents. Any team that wants to get past Chicago is going to have to figure out a way to score on them consistently, and that proved to be a nearly impossible task this season.

2. Derrick Rose

He’s going to win the MVP award. Forget about if he’s the best player in the league for a second and focus on what we definitely know he is. He’s unstoppable when he drives to the basket, he’s an excellent passer and floor general, he can make a momentum-shifting highlight play at the drop of a hat, and he’s become a dangerous three-point shooter. He’s not afraid of the big moment, and he’s fearless in crunch-time, but he knows to pass the ball if that’s the right play. He’s young, he’s a physical specimen, he’s got the skills, he’s going to win the MVP award, and he’s ready to take the final step. Get ready.

3. Depth

Do the Bulls have A Dynamic Duo? A Big Three? A Fantastic Four? Maybe. Rose is definitely a superstar, Joakim Noah is a force on the boards and on defense, and Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng are reliable players who can drop 25 efficient points on any given night. Do they measure up to Boston, Miami, San Antonio’s, or Los Angeles’ top players? It might not matter.

The Bulls may not have as much star power as some other playoff contenders, but they have what every coach and general manager should want his team to have: A 10-man rotation full of players that every coach in the league would want on his roster. Ronnie Brewer makes life hell for his opponents when he plays defense, can finish around the rim, and makes some of the best off-ball cuts in the league. Omer Asik is a defensive dynamo who chases after every loose ball and rebound like his life depends on it.

Kyle Korver is one of the purest shooters in the league and rarely makes a dumb play. Taj Gibson’s length, athleticism, and defensive instincts make him one of the best backup power forwards in the league. C.J. Watson can make open shots, run the offense without incident, and plays textbook-perfect defense on opposing points. Laugh at Keith Bogans all you want, but he knows what his jobs are and he does them well. When Kurt Thomas is asked to do something, he does it. Every one of the Bulls’ players knows what his role is, has confidence in his game, and executes his role to perfection. Having role players that just take up space and role players that know what they need to do to help their team win has decided many a playoff series, and no team has a more capable cast of role players than the Bulls.

The Bulls have the tools to go all the way, and they have the right mentality to do it. They proved just how good they are in the regular season; now they’re just 16 wins away from removing all doubt about their ability to be champions.

Zaza Pachulia steals ball, starts break, blows open layup against Suns (VIDEO)

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Zaza Pachulia is riding the Golden State Warriors train for all it’s worth, in the good and the bad. In November, Pachulia hit a mid-range jumper and did a horse dance. If that was the zenith, Saturday night against the Phoenix Suns was the nadir.

Particularly because Pachulia blew a breakaway layup in which he definitely should have scored.

Instead, the Warriors big man stuffed the ball between the iron and the backboard, clumsily squandering his opportunity:

*Sad trombone*

Russell Westbrook’s no-look, two-hand, behind-his-head pass ignites Thunder break

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Russell Westbrook was just himself — hustling, attacking, and getting his fifth triple-double in a row Sunday night against the Pelicans.

But the play of the night didn’t get him any points or an assist. It was Westbrook hustling, getting to the floor to get a loose ball, then making the showtime pass to start a Globetrotters-like fast break that ended with an Andre Roberson dunk.

Westbrook had an impressive dunk of his own.

NBA VP Kiki VanDeWeghe on “unnaturual acts:” “Our rules are for every player”

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The NBA has tried to crack down on “unnatural acts” — players flailing body parts trying to draw a foul call.

At the heart of that is Golden State’s Draymond Green, who picked up a flagrant foul for the unnatural act of getting his leg high enough to kick James Harden in the face Thursday night. Green fired back at the league, saying in part, “It’s funny how you can tell me how I get hit and how my body is supposed to react. I didn’t know the league office was that smart when it came to body movements.” Green’s argument is that he was fouled in the air and the high leg was the natural act of him trying to keep his balance. (Doesn’t matter, it’s a reckless act and if you kick someone in the face you should get a flagrant foul. Also, try explaining the kick on Marquese Chriss on Saturday that way.)

Former All-Star NBA player as well as coach Kiki VanDeWeghe is now an NBA vice president and the guy who is the decision maker on these reviews and fouls. He spoke with Sam Amick of the USA Today about how those unnatural act rules are applied.

“Our rules are for every player,” VanDeWeghe told USA TODAY Sports. “We want each play judged according to the rules, as best possible, and the rules applied fairly across our whole league. That’s very important to us. We don’t make exceptions for players. They are applied to everybody.

“In Draymond’s particular case (against the Houston Rockets on Thursday), he had an arm flail which struck the player (James Harden) in the neck-head area. And then in addition to that, he had a kick up above the head of the defender. As he brought his leg down, his heel hit him in the face. It wouldn’t matter what player we’re talking about (it’s a foul)….

“Most of these are done to draw the attention of the referees. We noticed an uptick in these last year, and they needed to be addressed by the competition committee.”

While Green feels singled out — “marked” is what he tweeted — VanDeWeghe noted that competition committee included owners, coaches, GMs, people from the players union, and a lot of people with playing experience, who all sat down as a group and studied what is and is not an “unnatural act.” As Amick noted, it isn’t just Green who gets hit with these penalties, although he gets the headlines: Boston’s Marcus Smart was given a Flagrant One for his kick to the groin of the Miami’s Hassan Whiteside; Thursday LeBron James was given a technical foul for his blow to the head of the Clippers’ Alan Anderson.

So long as Green continues to make these acts — and the kick to Chriss Saturday suggests they are not slowing down — the crackdown will continue.

Watch Raptors PG Kyle Lowry throw a full-court alley oop to Pascal Siakam

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Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry is having an excellent year for the Eastern Conference Finals hopefuls, and part of that is due to his vision. On Saturday, Lowry threw a full-court lob to Pascal Siakam that was mighty impressive.

After a missed shot in the middle of the third quarter by the Atlanta Hawks, Lowry gathered the rebound on the left block and quickly turned his eyes downcourt.

Siakam, the No. 27 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, was streaking toward the Raptors basket and behind the Hawks defense.

Lowry took advantage with a long-distance heave after one dribble at the free-throw line, and Pascal was able to gather and softly lay the ball up at the rim.