Indy Cornrows: Before the season, I mentioned that the Pacers should be building to deal with the Bulls in the future, figuring by the time the Pacers were ready to make a playoff run, Boston would be a different team, Miami is, well Miami, hard to replicate and Dwight Howard may not be in Orlando. Obviously the Bulls were trending up and in a couple of years would be top dogs in the East. Well, suddenly the Bulls ARE the top team in the East. How giddy are Bulls fans with the rapid rise into title contenders? How have the expectations changed? Is it fair to expect an NBA title this year?
Matt: It's been certainly unexpected in that they became this good, became this good so fast, AND became so good this fast with some significant injuries along the way. I think the fan base is no doubt giddy, and really do believe that the title can be won this season. I'd still pick 'the field' over any one team, but the Bulls do have as good a shot as any. The idea of needing to see heartbreak first in the playoffs doesn't ring true to me: if they're good enough to win it now, they can win it now. And since they had the best regular season out of any team, it's a pretty compelling case that they're good enough.
Indy Cornrows: The Bulls have brought a high level of effort and produced more consistently than any team in the league, a large reason they ended the season with the best record.Do you think they have another level or higher gear to kick into for the playoffs? Are there concerns about the wear and tear of the regular season showing up in the post-season?
Matt: I do not think they have another gear, outside of the Noah+Boozer combination everyone is playing at a very high level. But whether they even need another gear is questionable, they're playing so well now it's more on the other contenders, as in if they have the ability to dramatically raise their effectiveness. That's sort of outside the Bulls control, they need to just keep doing what they have been doing and they should fare very well. As far as the wear and tear of the season, it could show up particularly with Deng and Rose, though both have been iron men thus far they do take a beating. The Bulls depth and injuries to Noah and Boozer during the year could mean that those two are actually fresher than expected, but they're seemingly always susceptible to injury to some degree.
Indy Cornrows: Tom Thibodeau and Derrick Rose seem to be a perfect combination to lead the Bulls for many years to come. NBA coaches who have long-term success with one team seem to be able to combine a tough, task-master approach with a players-coach touch. Thibodeau obviously has the tough, defensive-minded coaching chops, but how does his coaching style project for the long term? Any concerns his voice will burn out with players after two or three years a la a Scott Skiles?
Matt: It is a long-term concern, but I don't think we'll see any potential cracks in Thibodeau's relationship with the team until they actually start losing. I think for right now it's a perfect situation they've been riding all season. If they lose in these playoffs, and then Thibs's demanding nature singling out every mistake is met with more rolled eyes than usual next season, perhaps an expiration date could be in sight. For now, his style works because he got them to believe it can, and he's been proven so far to be unconditionally right.
Indy Cornrows: What are your biggest concerns for the Bulls heading into the playoffs overall?
Matt: There's a few concerns, the aforementioned issues with Boozer and Noah both staying on the court and playing well together. And just a general sense that some advantages that the Bulls have enjoyed over the course of a full 82-game schedule may not be as effective as it will in a single series against a fellow high-caliber opponent: the Bulls superior depth could be negated as opponents don't rest their starters as much. And there's something to be said for great offense beating great defense: if the Bulls run into a team with tremendous shot-makers (hello, Miami), all the scheme and effort in the world may not be enough to get the stops necessary. And on the offensive end, we've yet to see what a prepared playoff opponent can do against the Bulls in trying to simply get the ball out of Derrick Rose's hands and take away the Bulls 1-5th (seemingly) options to score.
Indy Cornrows: What do you expect to see in the first round series with the Pacers? Any concerns? What indicators should we look for to know if the Bulls are vulnerable to a loss in a particular game?
Matt: I do expect a sweep, but I think one troubling situation that could crop up is if the Pacers make a run of transition opportunities, especially if they're 3-point shots. The Pacers only hope on offense is before the Bulls get set on D*, and if they're running out, filling the lane, spreading the Bulls out, and using some drive-and-kick, they can maybe put up a lot of points fairly quickly. I know the Pacers crash the offensive glass well, and though the Bulls defensive rebounding is outstanding it could be mitigated if they're long shots for longer rebounds.
*though even if the Bulls are set, expect the Pacers to get a least one alley-oop a game where Carlos Boozer fell asleep.