Eastern Conference Round 2 Playoff Preview: Chicago vs. Atlanta

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SEASON RECORDS
Bulls: 62-20 (No. 1 seed in East)
Hawks: 44-38(No. 5 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Bulls 2-1, all three games took place in a three-week span in March. The Hawks win was by three points at home, the Bulls two wins (one at home, one on the road) were by 18 and 33 points.

PLAYOFF SERIES
Bulls: defeated Indiana Pacers 4-1
Hawks: defeated Orlando Magic 4-2

SERIES SCHEDULE (times Eastern)
Game 1 — Mon. May 2 at Chicago 8:00PM (TNT)
Game 2 — Wed. May 4 at Chicago 8:00PM (TNT)
Game 3 — Fri. May 6 at Atlanta TBD (ESPN)
Game 4 – Sun. May 8 at Atlanta 8:00PM (TNT)
Game 5 * Tue. May 10 at Chicago TBD (TNT)
Game 6 * Thu. May 12 at Atlanta TBD (ESPN)
Game 7 * Sun. May 15 at Chicago TBD (TNT)
* If necessary

KEY INJURIES
Bulls: Carlos Boozer will play but is battling a case of turf toe, which could make him less effective (Jazz fans, stop laughing).
Hawks: Kirk Hinrich, we don’t know the extent of his hamstring injury suffered in Game 6 of the Magic series, but he left the game and will have an MRI Friday.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per possession)
Bulls: Offense 105.4 (12th in NBA); Defense 97.4 (1st in NBA)
Hawks: Offense 103.7 (20th in NBA); Defense 104.1 (15th in NBA)

THREE KEY BULLS

Derrick Rose. He remains the focal point of the Bulls offense and the creator of most shot opportunities — but the Pacers and Paul George did a good job of making him less efficient. He shot just 37 percent in that series, the Pacers did about as well as could be expected, even though Rose made big plays as a closer in the series. In the Bulls two wins against the Hawks, he had big games, but he had just 12 in their one loss. The Hawks do not have a good defensive matchup for Rose, he should have more free space this series.

Luol Deng. He will draw some key defensive assignments, probably some Joe Johnson time as one might expect. He’s also key because in the Bulls two wins he had big games, 27 points in the 33-point blowout Bulls win. They will need his offense like that again.

Joakim Noah. As always his job is primarily defensive, but this time he draws one tough task — Al Horford. Yes, technically as the center he could draw Jason Collins for stretches, but let’s be serious, Collins has served his purpose for the Hawks and he is no longer a threat. In the Hawks regular season win against Chicago Horford had 31 and 16. Noah also will be the strong side help to silence the Hawks isolation sets. If he has a good defensive series the Bulls will win and win quickly.

THREE KEY HAWKS

Jamal Crawford. Coach Larry Drew went to more isolation sets in the first round against Orlando, and Crawford returned to his Sixth Man of the Year form. The Hawks need shot creation in this series, they need to find a way to break down the Bulls overload defense and Crawford is one of their best chances.

Al Horford. The real way to break down the Bulls defense is not isolations on the perimeter but beating them inside. Horford is a gifted interior player and it’s no coincidence he had 31 in the Hawks one win over the Bulls. For them to have any chance in this series he will have to have some monster games.

Joe Johnson. The Bulls defense is designed to shut down the exact iso-Joe sets that the Hawks have had success with in the first round against Orlando. Johnson is going to have to both hit some contested jumpers but mostly he has move the ball to the weakside with quick passes (skip passes ideally).

OUTLOOK

This is about the best matchup the Bulls could have gotten.

The Hawks ball-movement offense that didn’t work well for them all season long worked less well against the rest of the league worked less well against the Bulls. They averaged 80 points per game (down from 94.8) and had an offensive rating of 92.4 (points per 100 possessions, down from 103.2 during the season). The Hawks shot fewer threes, got to the line less often, didn’t rebound as well and a host of other problems.

But those are the old Hawks, you say. The new Hawks of this postseason — the ones who just knocked off the Magic — have gone back to more of the isolation sets they are comfortable with. They are getting more from Jamal Crawford.

The Bulls defense is designed specifically to stop isolation sets. It overloads the strong side and the only way you really beat it is good ball movement. Which we established the Hawks do not do well.

Meanwhile, the Bulls were basically just a slightly better version of themselves against the Hawks. Rose was good and when he was somebody — Deng mostly — came with him and that provided enough offense to win.

The Hawks best chance is to create turnovers and run more. The Bulls defense is a wall when it is set but they can be beat in transition. The Hawks need to create turnovers and push the ball on everything. They have to defend better than they have all season. They have to find someone who can slow Rose.

They need to play a lot better than they did to beat the Magic. The Bulls just need to be the Bulls.

PREDICTION

Like I said before, this may be the best matchup for the Bulls this playoffs.

Bulls in 5.

Kobe Bryant on Kanye West’s comments: “What the hell are you talking about?”

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Kanye West, the President Trump backing hip-hop star, drew a lot of backlash for his comments on TMZ:

“When you hear about slavery for 400 years — for 400 years? That sounds like a choice. You were there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all. It’s like we’re mentally imprisoned.” 

Mentally, maybe in some cases. But more so physically, with guns and whips and attack dogs and a whole lot more weapons that were all on one side. Nobody chooses slavery.

Tuesday, Kobe Bryant surprised a group of about 300 high school students at WE RISE — a 10-day pop-up festival dedicated to sparking a movement for change in the mental health system — in Downtown Los Angeles. One of the students asked him about Kanye’s comments. Kobe is not down.

“I’m sure (I feel) the same way everybody else here in this room feels. What the hell are you talking about? I think that was my reaction as is everybody else’s reaction….

“The thing about our country is that you have the right to say whatever it is that you want to say…that’s the beautiful thing about living in a democracy. I think, for him, he’s one of these entertainers that’s always in a constant state of growth, he’s always challenging … himself, doing a lot of questioning internally himself…so I just take it for what it is and completely disagree.”

If I need to explain to you why Kobe is in the right here, you need to take a basic American history course again.

Good on Kobe for his comments. More importantly, good on Kobe for taking the time to promote mental health awareness.

“It’s easy for us as people to kind of ignore the emotional side of it,  especially when it comes to things that deal with negativity, things that deal with insecurity, things that deal with fear,” Kobe said. “It’s very easy to take the fear and just push it down, try to act like it doesn’t exist. The reason why it starts with imagination is because you first must imagine the life that you want to have. You must first imagine what it is you dream of becoming.”

Kobe did that, and now he’s got an Oscar. Oh, and a few basketball awards, too.

PBT Extra: LeBron, Cavaliers even series but Celtics far from dead

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If you want to make the case that the Cleveland Cavaliers are in the driver’s seat of the Eastern Conference Finals after sweeping two games at home, you’re in a good space. It’s a best-of-three and Cleveland has the best player on the planet on their side.

However, I still like the Celtics to hold on and win in seven.

I get into it in this PBT Extra, but the Celtics looked like a team that figured things out in the final three quarters of Game 4 (they just couldn’t make up for a disastrous first quarter), and they still have two games at home.

Either way, this feels like a series going the distance.

Did the Warriors deal Rockets a knockout blow in Western Conference finals?

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The Warriors beat the Rockets by 41 (!) in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals Sunday.

Biggest playoff win in Golden State franchise history.

Biggest playoff loss in Houston franchise history.

Biggest playoff loss ever handed to any team as good as the 65-17 Rockets.

“At the end of the day, it’s one win,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “It doesn’t matter if you win by 40 or if you win by one.”

Maybe it matters more than Green is letting on.

Golden State was the 17th team to -win a playoff game by more than 40 points. Of the previous 16, 15 – including the last 14 – won the series:

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The only exception came in my favorite playoff series of all-time, the best-of-three 1956 Western Division semifinals:

  • Game 1: St. Louis Hawks 116, Minneapolis Lakers 115
  • Game 2: Minneapolis Lakers 133, St. Louis Hawks 75
  • Game 3: St. Louis Hawks 116, Minneapolis Lakers 115

So, teams to win a playoff game by more than 40 are 15-0 in best-of-seven or best-of-five series. Will the Rockets buck the trend?

They can make adjustments. Maybe Houston’s strong regular season – better than any above blown-out team’s – indicates a rare capability to recover from this. Andre Iguodala‘s injury hurts Golden State. Teams sometimes make historic comebacks from blowouts, including against the Warriors.

But that Golden State ran toppled the Rockets so decisively in Game 3 suggests the Warriors are hitting a gear Houston won’t keep up with.

Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell receive, Jayson Tatum one vote shy of, unanimous All-Rookie first-team selections

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The 76ers’ Ben Simmons, Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Celtics’ Jayson Tatum and Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma were locks for the All-Rookie first team.

The final seemingly up-for-grabs spot? It went to the Bulls’ Lauri Markkanen, and it wasn’t close.

Here’s the full voting for All-Rookie teams (first-team votes, second-team votes, total voting points):

First team

  • Donovan Mitchell, UTA (100-0-200)
  • Ben Simmons, PHI (100-0-200)
  • Jayson Tatum, BOS (99-1-199)
  • Kyle Kuzma, LAL (93-7-193)
  • Lauri Markkanen, CHI (76-21-173)

Second team

Others receiving votes:

The first team matches our choices.

Dennis Smith Jr. and Josh Jackson are the only selections I’d quibble with. Those two were just so destructive with shooting efficiency and defense. To be fair, they were pressed into larger roles than they were ready for on bad teams. But if the goal is picking the rookies who had the best seasons (what I aim to do), Smith and Jackson didn’t cut it.

However, some voters give more credence to long-term potential, and Smith and Jackson both have plenty of that. Other voters are drawn by bigger per-game numbers, which Smith and Jackson produced in their larger roles. So, it’s minimally surprising they made it.

That one first-team vote for Jackson, though? That’s odd – and it was enough to get him on the second team by one voting point over Heat center Bam Adebayo.