Inside the NBA | Chicago grabs playoff spot by the horns
Published: Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Updated: Wednesday, April 15, 2009 07:04
Which team is the one that no one in the Eastern Conference wants to face in the playoffs? That would be the Chicago Bulls.
Forget about the Cubs, White Sox or Jay Cutler. Chicago has one of the hottest teams in the NBA, as the Bulls have won 12 of their last 15 games. That streak includes wins over some of the top teams in the league, such as the New Orleans Hornets and Boston Celtics. Two of the losses have also been by five points or less, as the 41-40 Bulls have already surpassed last year's disappointing 33-win season in which they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04.
The Bulls are succeeding because of their offense, which is the eighth-best in the NBA and is averaging 102.2 points a game. Chicago likes to push the offense and, though it does not shoot the ball particularly well, it is in the top five in field goals attempted per game.
Derrick Rose is the catalyst for success in Chicago. The leading candidate for the Rookie of the Year award, Rose has played major minutes all season and has flourished under coach Vinny Del Negro, a former player for the San Antonio Spurs. Rose is in the top 20 in assists, with 6.3 a game and is also pouring in 16.8 points per game.
His backcourt partner, Ben Gordon, is back closer to his 2006-07 form, when he averaged over 21 points a game. Now starting after spending most of last year coming off the bench, Gordon is leading the Bulls and is in the top 20 in the league with 20.7 points a game. His three-point range makes him a great complement to Rose.
A pair of young frontcourt players in third-year power forward Tyrus Thomas and second-year man Joakim Noah has also shown great strides as of late. Thomas has improved by leaps and bounds offensively this year, upping his scoring average by four points a game to get to double digits. He is also averaging 6.4 rebounds a game, two more than last year, thanks to his increase in minutes.
Noah gives the Bulls another big man who is strong on the glass, but more importantly, he teams with Thomas to form a formidable defensive duo in the paint that averages almost three and a half blocks a game.
But the key to the Bulls' recent run has been a couple of new additions -- Brad Miller and, in particular, John Salmons -- who came over in a trade deadline deal with the Sacramento Kings. Miller, who has always been one of the best passing big men in the league, has given Chicago a veteran presence to team with its youngsters in the middle. He has averaged 11.8 points and 7.7 rebounds since joining the Bulls and should see a fair share of the minutes come playoff time.
It is Salmons, however, who makes the Bulls a threat to whichever team they will face starting this weekend. Now starting at small forward due to the season-ending injury to Luol Deng, Salmons has stepped right in to help shoulder the scoring load. He is averaging 18.5 points and has scored in double figures in all but one of the games he has played in a Chicago uniform.
With a win Monday over Detroit, the Bulls ensured that they will be at least the seventh, and quite possibly the sixth, seed in the Eastern Conference. That means that they will avoid a first-round matchup with the favorites for the title, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
With the Philadelphia 76ers facing back-to-back games versus the Celtics and Cavs, the Bulls are likely to face the Orlando Magic in the opening round. And with the Magic reeling, having lost four of their last five games, the Bulls might be in great position to pull a first-round upset.