A few weeks ago, I wrote a pretty straightforward post explaining why the Bulls, scrappy and tough as they are, did not have a realistic shot at advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals this year. My reasoning was that as good as the Bulls were playing, it would be impossible to take down the conference elite in a seven game series. In the post, I wrote:
Indiana is certainly more intriguing because they are built in a very similar fashion to the Bulls. However, the Pacers no doubt can beat the Bulls at their own game. They’re the only team with a higher defensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions, a simple way of ranking offenses and defenses without relying on the pace that teams play at) than Chicago and the difference between the two is equal to that between the Bulls and #5 San Antonio. The Bulls could maybe push Indiana to six or seven, but only an injury to Paul George or Roy Hibbert could really hinder the Pacers.
All that stuff is still probably true, but the last few weeks have made things significantly murkier. The Pacers are playing their worst basketball of the season by far. They averaged just 89 points per game in March and also became the first team to ever win 50 games and then fail score to 90 in six straight. While the Bulls offense has yet to climb from 29th in points per possession, the club has been playing much more respectable offense with Joakim Noah’s surge in assists (!) and the amazingly consistent presence of DJ Augustin. As Indiana’s offense plummets and both defenses remain the cream of the crop, the gap between the teams becomes smaller and smaller.
The most alarming part of the Pacers’ decline might be their most fixable problem. While the trade of Danny Granger could easily be a straw man argument, it’s hard to deny that the Pacers have fucking hated each other since then. Paul George’s dick is on the internet. Everyone hates Lance Stephenson. Larry Bird thinks Frank Vogel is too soft. Poor Roy Hibbert forgot how to rebound. It all sounds pretty bad, but some good basketball would probably help a lot of these issues. Regardless, these are some alarming ass stories for a team that was unified and hardened on its quest for the #1 seed for the first few months of the season.
Oh yeah, the #1 seed. About that. After getting shellacked by San Antonio (who deserve a post of their own for their incredible 18 game winning streak), Indiana fell to second place in the conference. Even more shocking about this fall is that Indiana defeated Miami last week in a game that really solidified their standing before dropping games to Washington and Cleveland. It seems very likely now that Miami holds onto the top seed and earns home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Back to the Bulls. The Bulls and Raptors are currently tied with the exact same record for third in the conference. The Bulls eight remaining games are extremely winnable, and if they can snag the three seed the rewards could be enormous. Primarily, it means avoiding a first round matchup with Brooklyn. The Nets have quietly been excellent in 2014, amassing the best record in the conference while also winning 14 straight home games. I think the Bulls are a superior team, but playing the Wizards would be greatly preferred.
Furthermore, as we’ve already discussed, a second round matchup with Indiana could be extremely winnable. If the Pacers are still mired in an offensive and chemical funk, the Bulls are more than ready to rip them apart with Joakim bounce passes and Taj posters. In the very possible event that the seeding works out this way, the Bulls have a legitimate crack at advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals once again. And while I can’t imagine Miami losing before or during that round, an overlooked advantage to the three seed is the always present possibility of an upset or injuries. Don’t forget, Boston took Miami to seven games in 2012 after beating Philadelphia in the second round because of a certain ACL injury. Injuries decide the NBA more than we like to admit, so maybe this will finally be the year that the basketball gods smile upon Chicago.