PBT NBA Playoff Preview: Brooklyn Nets vs. Chicago Bulls

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SEASON RECORDS

Brooklyn: 49-33, fourth seed in East

Chicago: 45-37, fifth seed in East

SEASON SERIES

The Bulls won 3-1, but one win came by one and another came by two.

KEY INJURIES

Chicago: Derrick Rose is out until he’s not, and at this point, the Bulls can’t really worry about him. They can, however, fret about Joakim Noah, who might miss Game 1, according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Brooklyn: offense 105.0 (9th best in NBA), defense 103.6 (18th in NBA)

Chicago: offense 100.4 (24th in NBA), defense 100.3 (5th in NBA)

Differential: Nets +1.4 (12th in NBA), Bulls +0.1 (15th in NBA)

THREE KEYS FOR BROOKLYN:

Follow Reggie Evans’ lead: Playing a team as physical and hard-working as Chicago at least four games in a row will be a shock to the system for the Nets, but they can’t let it overwhelm them. They should look to Reggie Evans, who embraces physical play and even dishes out his share of physicality. If his teammates wilt under that pressure, this will be a long series for Brooklyn. If they embrace it, their talent will give them the edge.

Force feed Brook Lopez: Lopez is one of the league’s most skilled big men, and even against Chicago’s plus interior defense, Lopez should go to work in the post. Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson have been playing through injury, and Lopez will be a real test for them if they’re not fully healthy. By force-feeding Lopez, the Nets should know early whether they have an advantage in this spot.

Tell Gerald Wallace not to worry about shooting: Wallace admitted he’s lost confidence, and it shows in his shot. But Brooklyn can’t afford to completely lose Wallace for this playoff run. The Nets have enough other players capable of making jumpers, namely Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. Let Wallace focus on defending, rebounding and passing. He can still be a positive player for the Nets as long as they don’t let his poor shooting completely take him off his game.

THREE KEYS FOR CHICAGO:

Pressure Deron Williams: The questions about Williams being out of shape have quieted since Avery Johnson was fired, but there’s no denying Williams struggled early in the season. If Williams upped his workouts to get back in shape during the season, perhaps he’ll run out of gas as he plays more than he has in a few years. It’s worth the Bulls’ effort to try to gas him. Either way, whatever the Bulls can do to get the ball away from the Nets’ playmaker – who especially excels in the halfcourt offense typically featured during the playoffs – the better.

Put Nets in position to foul: The Nets commit the second-fewest fouls per field-goal attempt, partially because they don’t always defend with great physicality. Neither Carlos Boozer nor Luol Deng take many free throws, but they’re both capable of getting to the rim more often than they do, and they might be able to do so in this series without a ton of resistance.

If all else fails, ride Nate Robinson: Robinson has had several great games late this season, though it’s an admittedly scary proposition to run the offense through him. But if the short-handed Bulls fall behind, a spark like Robinson might be their only hope. They can’t be afraid to jump on the back of the player who’s capable of lifting his game to near-elite levels if they’re in a pinch.

OUTLOOK

Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls have never been the lower seed in a playoff series before now, and this role seems to suit them well. The Bulls will rely heavily on a second-year player who snuck into the first round (Jimmy Butler), a much-maligned power forward (Carlos Boozer) and an undersized point guard few teammates wanted a year ago (Nate Robinson).

If Joakim Noah gets healthy – it might be too late for that, because the Bulls didn’t rest him enough during the regular season – and Taj Gibson stays healthy, Chicago has a very real chance. Heck, at that point, the Bulls might even be the favorite.

But that seems unlikely. Noah hasn’t looked right recently, and without him playing at full strength, the Bulls take a big hit. This series will swing on Noah’s health.

The Nets have all the talent money can buy, and their big-contract players give them a talent advantage over Chicago. But the Bulls have the coaching advantage.

PREDICTION:

Bulls in seven

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.

Marc Gasol: If Grizzlies don’t share my goal of continued growth, we might have to revisit things

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The Grizzlies’ Grit & Grind era has ended.

Zach Randolph signed with the Kings, and Tony Allen appears likely to leave Memphis, too. The Grizzlies are prioritizing younger/cheaper players like Ben McLemore and Tyreke Evans.

Marc Gasol via Ala Carta, as translated by HoopsHype:

I’m very ambitious and I’ve wanted Memphis to be a great franchise. We’ve grown a lot the last 6-7 years, but we have to keep growing. If this is not lined up, maybe we may have to revisit things.

Gasol has been loyal to Memphis, and his first wish is probably winning there. But Giannis Antetokounmpo put it well: Teams must also do right by their players. Gasol is 32 and doesn’t have much time in his prime left. I see why rebuilding wouldn’t interest him.

But what will he do about it if the Grizzlies don’t prioritize the present? They made their push last summer with a max contract for Chandler Parsons, but because Parsons can’t stay healthy, that deal only inhibits team growth.

Gasol is locked up for two more years before a player option. He doesn’t have much leverage. This is part of the reason LeBron James keeps signing short-term contracts. Gasol doesn’t have the same ability to steer his team in his desired direction

On the potentially bright side, rebuilding teams often don’t have much use for 32-year-olds guaranteed more than $72 million over the following three years. If the fit devolves, Memphis becomes more likely to trade him.