The Bulls have already clinched the top seed in the Eastern Conference and are one win over the Cavaliers (or one Spurs loss) away from earning the best record in the league for the second year in a row.
But according to Joakim Noah — and any sane person would agree — playoff seeding against the West (that is, San Antonio) is secondary to entering the playoffs ready.
Said Noah: “We’re just trying to do what we can do as a team. We’re just playing for ourselves. We just want to be playing well for when it really counts.”
To that end, the starters had an easy night, minutes-wise. And I mean “easy” by Tom Thibodeau standards. In other words, none of the starters logged 40 minutes. Noah and Luol Deng led the team with 34 minutes a piece…and those 34 minutes might be an all-time low for Luol during Thibodeau’s tenure.
Of course, most teams at this stage of the season are resting their best players. But that sort of goes against everything this particular Chicago squad is about.
The Bulls were fine-tuning and trying to get Derrick Rose (27 minutes, 10 points, 7 assists, 1 turnover) back in some kind of rhythm. Rose very clearly needs to knock of some more rust — he was 3-for-11 from the field and only 2-for-5 at the rim — but at least he seems to be getting some of his thrust back.
Said Thibs: “A lot more explosive. I just think he’s gotten more comfortable. He was out a long period of time. When he comes back, he usually gets up to speed pretty quickly. He said this morning that he was feeling a lot better and that’s after two days of practice, too. That’s a real good sign, we’re encouraged by that.
“I thought he had some real good attacks on the basket. The ball was just in and out for him. But seven assists, one turnover, taking care of the ball, running the team. I thought that was very good.”
As for Derrick’s injured ankle?
Said Rose: “It feels good. Getting treatment, icing it, even when I’m at home, doing the same thing, icing it as much as possible. The swelling’s down and hopefully I should be ready [Thursday] and for the playoffs.”
At this point, Rose feeling reasonably healthy and springy is about the best we can ask for.
It was a good win last night, even if the Pacers were resting Danny Granger, and there were some positive signs above and beyond Rose’s health status.
For instance, Noah (14 points, 14 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block) and Carlos Boozer (16 points, 8-for-10, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks) are really playing well together. That’s a huge plus going into the playoffs. Don’t forget: last season, both players spent significant time on the shelf and not playing together, and they often looked awkward at best on the floor together during the playoffs. That shouldn’t be a problem this season.
Also, in case you haven’t noticed, Boozer is now one game away from playing every single regular season game this year.
Said Boozington: “I’m happy to be healthy, especially in this kind of season when there’s games almost every day, or traveling every day. I’m proud of myself; knock on wood and hopefully we can keep it going.”
Here’s an odd fact for you: Boozer and Noah are the team’s best percentage shooters from 16-23 feet, at 45 and 41 percent, respectively. Nobody else on the team is over 40. The next closest players are Rose and Rip Hamilton at 37 percent.
The Bulls did their usual dirty work on the boards, thanks largely to Noah, winning the rebounding battle 44-34. They also had another one of their high assist nights, compiling 27 assists on 38 made field goals. According to Hoopdata, the Bulls rank fourth in Assists Per Game (22.9), Assist Percentage (61.1 percent) and Assist Ratio (21.5).
If I have a lingering concern about this team heading into the playoffs, it’s that they are primarily a jump shooting team. Last night, the Bulls attempted 34 shots from 16-23 feet and 17 three-pointers versus only 17 shots at the rim.
On the season, Chicago ranks fifth in shot attempts from 16-23 feet (22.7) despite ranking only 22nd in FGP from 16-23 feet (36.7). And while they do rank seventh in shot attempts at the rim (26.6), they rank 24th in FGP at the rim (60.2). Then there’s the whole ranking 27th in free throw percentage thing (72.2 percent). And, possibly more troubling, the Bulls are 26th in Free Throws Per Field Goal Attempt (.185).
It’s possible that I shouldn’t worry about these things — particularly since the Bulls rank fifth in Offensive Rating (107.2 points per 100 possessions). But in the playoffs, when the defense is ratcheted up, scoring gets really difficult for teams that don’t convert at the rim and the line. Jump shooting teams usually get penalized by fate and the fact that long twos are the worst shot in basketball.
On the bright side, Chicago ranks fourth in 3P% at 37.6 percent…though only 18th in three-point attempts (1101).
I’m just saying: I’m worried about how they’re going to score in the playoffs.
Fearless prediction: The Bulls will clinch the league’s top seed tonight at home against the Cavaliers. Despite missing Rose for 26 games and Rip Hamilton for 38 games. I guess all those people who didn’t think the Bulls could maintain the focus and intensity they displayed last season — a group of naysayers that unfortunately included me — were wrong.