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It’s time to start thinking about Chicago differently. They are no longer a team that will be good someday when they get the right pieces together. They are no longer the harbor for potential MVP Derrick Rose and nothing more. They are especially no longer a team that is fun to like from a distance because they are not going to do any damage in the East. No, Chicago is a juggernaut, and in last weekend’s games, where we saw top Eastern Conference teams beating up on each other, a window of insight opened up on how things may shape up in the East.
It would be foolish to say that Chicago is a lock for the NBA Finals. After all, the East is loaded with potential contenders. The top four teams alone have shown that they are all capable of beating up on each other – and all capable of winning a seven-game series against each other, too. Well, except Miami. We’ll talk about them in a moment. But when you take a closer look and start comparing exactly how each team has been successful, the Bulls are starting to look like the team to beat in the East.
Chicago still trails the Celtics by two and a half games for the best record in the Eastern Conference, but John Hollinger rates them as the best team in the conference. His power rankings have the Bulls second overall, and first in the East. Naturally, he has the Bulls as playoff favorites, rating them the team most likely to win the NBA title according to his playoff predictions. How much you fear the Bulls based on these rankings depends on how much you trust John Hollinger and advanced statistics in general. Maybe you think the Bulls still have to prove themselves on the court before we anoint them “team to beat.”
Games in March mean nothing compared to games in June, but the Bulls showed a little “playoff mettle” last week against a tough slate of contenders in the East. Chicago got two big road wins in situations where, before last week, I would have called them the underdog. First, they go into Orlando where the Magic were walking tall after pulling off an improbable win in Miami just 24 hours earlier. Yeah, it was a back-to-back for the Magic, but the Bulls nevertheless presented the Magic with a problem they couldn’t solve.
For one thing, Kyle Korver and company were able to get into Dwight’s head. For another thing, The Bulls flat out played with more intensity, more execution, and more fire off the bench than Orlando did. Again, that could have been because the game came on the heels of an emotional Orlando win in Miami, but, as they say, a win’s a win, and to be sure, the playoffs will not be void of emotional games.
Then the Bulls marched into Miami where the Heat absolutely needed a win in front of their home crowd, and stole it. It might not have been the most convincing victory of the season, but convincing doesn’t matter in the NBA playoffs. Also, the Heat started crying when it was over. This is the kind of no nonsense weekends that potential NBA champions have, right?
Looking ahead, if the Bulls beat Boston in Chicago in April, they will have earned a split with Celtics for the season. With only 20 games to play, Chicago has a great chance of forcing every East contender to come through the United Center in order to get to the NBA Finals — a situation the NBA hasn’t seen since 1998.
Miami has been criticized as of late for their inability to close games and inability to beat good teams, but to write them off as a non-factor for the post season would probably be unwise. It’s tempting, though. Miami is the classic bully, destroying bad teams and folding against good teams and then crying about it.
The Heat have repeatedly shown that they buckle against good teams and in big games. Statistically, intangibly, and to the naked eye, the Heat seemed to have sealed their fate as a non-contender this year. That’s good news for Orlando. Despite the conference standings, and despite any conjecture about how good the big three could be, last weekend indicates that Orlando is in a much better spot than perhaps they even thought.
Still, if last weekend’s games were any kind of projection for the post season, the Magic are still a pretty sizeable question mark. Unlike Miami, they have shown countless times their ability to win big games, and that was most evident in Friday night’s win over Miami. Even taking into account Miami’s tendency to no-show under the bright lights, it was still an important win. But how can a team come off a game like that and not defend their home court the next night? Because the Bulls are so good they can’t be stopped? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Chicago may be quickly rising to the top in the East, but this is not the ’96 Bulls. Instead, I think there is a back-and-forth element with Orlando that might come back to bite them in the postseason.
Orlando fans, you have reason to be worried and reason to be excited all at the same time. It’s hard to predict (or project) what Orlando team will show up in April. The Magic are certainly capable of beating any team in the East on any given night, but earning a high seed won’t matter if they don’t vigorously defend their home court.
And in the meantime, it’s probably wise to keep an eye on the Bulls. They are gunning for that first spot in the East. There’s also that other team that comes to mind when you think of the East that you might want to watch out for. That would be the Boston Celtics.