One year ago, it was the Cleveland Cavaliers that were the East’s top seed (and had the league’s best record). The Cavs were considered a threat to win it all. The Bulls were struggling along at .500, with more talk about free agent plans than second round plans.
Things can change a lot in a year.
Friday night, the Bulls clinched the top overall seed in the East with a 92-83 win over the Cavaliers. It wasn’t a spectacular win (the statement win was the night before against Boston), but the win was vintage 2010-11 Bulls. Great defense, enough offense to get the win.
The Bulls held the Cavaliers to a 90.1 points per 100 possessions pace — that’s 12 points per 100 less than the Cavs average (and even 10 less than the Bulls normally give up). The Bulls defended the arc well, the Cavs were 2-of-15 from three. Baron Davis was just 4-of-12 (although Davis is fully capable of putting up that kind of night against anyone). The Bulls also didn’t foul, with the Cavs getting to the line just 11 times.
Usually the Bulls offense starts with Derrick Rose, but on this night he had just 11 points on 10 shots (plus 8 assists). This was the Carlos Boozer show, as he was 12-of-18 for 24 points to lead the team. As usual, the Bulls did a good job of exploiting where they thought they had a mismatch. Chicago, on the second night of a back-to-back coming off an emotional win over Boston, was not blowing anyone away on offense (102 points per 100 possessions pace). But it was enough. It’s almost always enough.
Coming into the season the feeling was the Bulls were just a step behind Boston, Miami and Orlando in terms of talent. They would finish fourth, they would be tough to beat but they still lacked pieces. There are still plenty of people who think pretty much the same thing about the Bulls in the playoffs.
But if you can defend like the Bulls defend, you can win any game. Any game. Deep in the playoffs included. They have a couple dynamic scorers, they have mismatches they can create that are the lifeblood of playoff basketball. They are serious title contenders, not just the team on top of the East this year.
The Bulls can ride vintage wins like this a long, long way.