A Bulls Market Once Again

derrick-rose-chicago-bulls-boston-celtics-2009-nba-playoffs

With all of the people that have been jumping on the Blackhawks bandwagon (which halfway includes yours truly), it’s been easy to forget how many people still love the Bulls in Chicago.  In my opinion, when all things are equal (understanding that a less popular team that’s doing extraordinarily well in a particular year is going to receive more buzz than a more popular team that’s performing poorly at the same time), the Bulls are third in the overall Chicago sports pecking order behind the Bears and Cubs, but that’s been tough to observe these past few months with the team needing a surge after the All-Star break to secure a .500 regular season record and the concurrent Hawks renaissance and high expections for the Cubs, White Sox, and Bears.  However, the Bulls’ literally heart-stopping playoff series with the Celtics is likely going to return the pecking order back into normalcy as the general public starts to truly understand how special of an athlete Derrick Rose already is at 20-years old and that we’re witnessing a young team on the ascent.  Certainly, there are a number of issues with this club (as I’ll get to in a moment), but I’m really enjoying how the town is buzzing about the Bulls again (speaking as someone that followed this franchise intensely through a whole lot of dark days over the past decade and is anything but a bandwagon Bulls fan).  When I went to the Bulls-Lakers game at the United Center last month, it was apparent that the sold-out crowd (whether they were cheering for Chicago or L.A.) was mostly there for the chance to see Kobe Bryant and Company.  Now, though, the Bulls (and specifically the magnificence of D-Rose) are becoming an attraction unto themselves, which means that tickets at the United Center are going to become a whole lot harder to come by.  Here are my thoughts on the series that’s tied up at 2 games apiece so far:

  • I’m wondering where that significant contingent of people that thought that the Bulls should have taken Michael Beasley over Derrick Rose have gone.  That argument is looking as inane as the 1998 NFL Draft debate where Ryan Leaf supposedly had more upside than Peyton Manning.  (Of course, every upside has a commensurate downside.)  There’s been plenty of print about Rose’s performance so far, but it’s all deserved – here’s a rookie point guard that was attending his high school prom two years ago at this time completing already breaking veteran players down, in a playoff series against the defending NBA champs, no less, in a manner that legitimately has made impartial observers openly state that there’s no ceiling on what this kid can achieve.  This was why I was so excited when the lottery balls bounced the way of the Bulls a year ago – while there’s no 100% sure thing in sports, Derrick Rose was about as close to that as anyone could reasonably get.
  • The focus on Rose and also shone the spotlight on his counterpart on the Celtics, Rajon Rondo.  While watching the Celtics’ run to the title last season, I saw Rondo as a solid complementary piece to a championship team – someone along the lines of a more athletic version of Kirk Hinrich.  However, I’ve been completely blown away by Rondo’s performance during this series with the Bulls, where he’s been the best and most consistent player on either team over the first four games.  The jump in his game from last season to this year makes me believe that Rondo has gone from a supporting cast member to a cornerstone player that the Celtics can build around once the Boston Three Party has moved on.  Frankly, even as a Bulls fan, I’m miffed that the media swarm around Rondo has been relatively muted compared to his stellar performance – the storylines around Rose, the ability of both Ben Gordon and Ray Allen to swish 30-foot jumpshots while double-teamed by 7-foot defenders, and Paul Pierce’s overall game seem to have taken away a lot of print from the former Kentucky point guard.  This is a shame since Rondo’s play is the most surprising story in the first round of the playoffs.
  • I still have no confidence that the Bulls can make a key defensive stop when necessary.  Both of the Bulls’ wins would never have even gone to overtime if the team could have avoided a stupid foul and/or buckled down in man-to-man defense in the respective last possessions in regulation.  The defense at the end of game 3 was passable in the sense that Ray Allen made a ridiculous fadeaway shot over Joakim Noah that no one could have defended, but that also ignores the fact that Allen was the one guy that the Bulls absolutely couldn’t let get the ball in the first place.  This series is a Paul Pierce free throw and game 1 and a made open Celtics jumpshot in game 4 from being a Boston sweep as opposed to an even series.  Ultimately, the subpar defense in pressure situations is going to be the downfall for the Bulls whether it’s in this round against the Celtics or another team if they somehow move on.
  • It’s hard to believe, but Joakim Noah is actually growing on me.  I was a harsh critic of the Bulls drafting him two years ago, but his overall play in this series along with his performance over the second half of the season has at least given me some indication of his value.  If Tyrus Thomas can keep up his all-around production (which I have my doubts on – we’ve seen a whole lot of flourishes from him over the years and he always seems to recede shortly afterwards), then Noah makes a whole lot of sense on the floor as a disruptive defensive player.  For all of those people out there that are just starting to get back into following the Bulls and have a completely negative impression of Noah, whether it’s because of his days at Florida, ridiculous hair, or general d-baggery, I completely understand where you’re coming from.  However, if you can just focus on his basketball play, you’ll find that he actually has been a very good contributor and the Bulls are certainly a lot worse off defensively when he’s not on the floor.
  • It took up until game 4, but it appears that Vinny Del Negro has finally figured out that a timeout in the last seconds of the game might be a little bit useful.  I’ll repeat my mea culpa on my premature dissing of Rick Carlisle last summer (although I’ll note that I wrote that post before the Bulls hit the lottery jackpot) – it’s not that he’s a particularly great coach, but at least he’s not affirmatively making his team worse by his presence.  As everyone is witnessing now, this Bulls team is pretty talented and deep.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the Bulls would have won 9 or 10 more games in the regular season along with game 2 of this series with a halfway competent coach.
  • What’s the test of whether you’re a true Bulls fan that stuck through the down years?  If you saw the brief spat between Brad Miller and Glen “Big Baby” Davis in game 4 and immediately thought back to this legendary fight between Miller (during his first stint in Chicago) and Shaq.  Please note the irony of Ron Artest actually acting as the peacemaker in this brawl (plus Shaq gets tackled by Charles Oakley – honestly, there’s nothing that I don’t love about this video).
  • I wonder if I’m alone in this reaction, but I went from laughing out loud in watching this Burger King commercial featuring Sir Mix-a-Lot to being quite disturbed upon finding out at the end that it’s actually to sell kids’ meals (and I usually find a direct correlation between offensiveness and comedy).
  • Speaking of old school rap in commercials, I was delighted to see the marketing recognition of the genius that is Biz Markie.
  • The one thing that has surprised me above all else is that despite the defensive and coaching flaws of the Bulls so far in the series, this team has still been able to win games.  Prior to the start of the series, I was pretty convinced that the Bulls would need to play completely perfect games in order to take any games from the Celtics.  Part of me is disappointed in knowing that the Bulls ought to be seeded a whole lot higher (maybe even fourth so that they would have had home court advantage) if they had played up to their talent level all season, but overall I’m ecstatic that they’ve showed up at the right time and making the most of their opportunities against a depleted Boston team.

Boxing analogies applied to other sports are all too commonplace, but in the case of this series, it’s entirely appropriate.  Outside of the horrific game 3, these games between the Bulls and Celtics have been about withstanding multiple punches and who can throw the last knockout blow in the end.  As emotionally draining as these games have been, it’s the first time in a whole long time (maybe since 1998) where it’s a whole lot of fun to be a Bulls fan!

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

The NBA Finals That We All Wanted (Outside of Detroit and San Antonio)

The ABC/ESPN hype machine has gotten the Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals matchup that it has been craving since the day it took away the league television contract from NBC six years ago. (The worst thing about the network move was that the glorious John Tesh theme song was mothballed in favor of a rotation of music “stars” that has gotten progressively worse over the years, culminating in the horrific current opening that stars Tim McGraw and Def Leppard. For as much as the ESPN empire bashes us over the head with pop culture references, they seem to have confused the highly urbanized NBA audience with a group of carnies from Decatur. This might also be planting the seeds of another sick ploy by the television conglomerate to jam NASCAR cross-promotions down our throats.) I’ll be honest with you – I’ve been craving this matchup, too. It’s not that I have any personal affinity for either of these teams, but I couldn’t take another NBA Finals involving the Pistons (unequivocally my least favorite pro sports franchise after the Packers) and the Spurs (a team that I know I ought to like as a pure basketball fan, but they annoy me in an irrational manner). Plus, as a sports fan in general, I’ve come to appreciate the rekindling of storied rivalries at the highest level since people can’t bank on it anymore with increased parity in all of the sports leagues. Back when I was a little kid, the Celtics and Lakers playing in the NBA Finals was considered a common occurrence, so the fact that it has been 21 years since they last met for the championship (a series that I remember clearly) is the latest in a long line of historical moments that have reminded me that I’m not really young anymore. What’s unique about the Celtics-Lakers rivalry is that it isn’t based on geography or conference/division affiliation like almost every other sports rivalry, such as the general New York vs. Boston/Philadelphia or Chicago vs. Detroit/Green Bay/St. Louis matchups (note that Cowboys-Redskins is still a divisional rivalry), but instead on excellence where they have met on the final stage with incredible frequency for a three decade stretch of time. The closest comparison might be Notre Dame-USC, but even then, they have only played one game where the teams were ranked #1 and #2 (this occurred in 1988, which was the last time the Irish won a national championship).

Of course, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird aren’t going to have much effect on this series. I was very excited about the prospect of the Celtics-Lakers matchup at the beginning of the NBA Playoffs, but over the past few weeks, it’s been looking more and more like this series can’t possibly live up to the hype. Hopefully, I’m wrong and this will push out to seven games, since that would be a transcendent sports moment. However, the Lakers look dominant right now and they disposed of the Spurs (who I think would beat the Celtics head-to-head) in five. There’s little indication that L.A. wouldn’t be able to dispose of Boston in the same number of games, so I’ll avoid the typical conservative commentator prediction of a six-game series and say that the Lakers will win 4-1 (I foresee a split of the first 2 games in Boston and then the Lakers rattling off 3 straight at the Staples Center).

Kobe Bryant continues to play out of his mind (the yahoo portion of the Bulls fan base that didn’t want to give up guys like Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon and/or Luol Deng for this guy last fall continue to look horrible) and will clearly be the best player on the floor (which you could say no matter who the Lakers are playing). I love Kevin Garnett as one of my favorite athletes that hasn’t played for a Chicago team or the Illini (although he’s a native Chicagoan), but he can’t necessarily take over a game the way Kobe can. At the end of the day, Paul Pierce is going to be the one that needs to match Kobe shot-for-shot while the rest of the Celtics have to hold down Pau Gasol and the balance of the torrid Lakers offense – that’s going to be a whole lot tougher than the one-man-LeBron-show that took Boston to the brink of elimination or the Pistons club that could only utilize Chauncey Billups in limited fashion.

At the same time, the Lakers have a monster coaching advantage in Phil Jackson over Doc Rivers. For the Phil-haters out there, particularly from Boston, that discount his accomplishments since his championships came with the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen Bulls and the Kobe/Shaq Lakers, I would like to point out that Red Auerbach never won a championship without Bill Russell in an era when power forwards rarely cracked 5’10”. I’m not sure why this never gets mentioned. Granted, I’m a bit biased here since I grew up as a Bulls fanatic and Phil was at the helm of the teams that provided me with probably the most memorable sports moments of my life. However, he should always deserve credit for getting the max out of that franchise in the 1990s. As much as I love Mike Ditka (to the point where I have this autographed photo in my basement), the ’85 Bears ended up being the ultimate one-hit wonder in sports history instead of the becoming the first championship team in a dynasty that should have lasted for the rest of the 1980s (Bill Walsh’s 49ers teams ended up filling that space) due to a lot of internal squabbling and personality clashes (many of which were caused by Ditka himself, much less the case of him not being able to solve them). In contrast, the ‘90s Bulls were able to achieve success even when they had a murder’s row of Godzilla-sized egos – MJ was a cold-hearted competitor to the extreme, Scottie was always a Toni Kukoc-last-shot-play from snapping, most of the rest of the team was perpetually at odds with Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause about their contracts, and there was that slightly-off personality known as Dennis Rodman during the second three-peat. The fact that Phil put those guys into line for six championships (along with three more rings with Lakers teams that were nearly as ego-filled) is a testament to his ability to coach in the modern NBA.

Meanwhile, Phil’s well-known soft skills in managing personalities and digging into players’ psyches are complemented by what I believe is an underrated substantive skill: I don’t know of a basketball coach at any level that has ever managed rotations of players better than Phil. Phil would often take MJ out of regular season games relatively early, yet the Bulls rarely collapsed because he got key bench players substantive playing team with Scottie Pippen running the second unit. This paid off massively in the postseason since (a) MJ was always healthy because he wasn’t unnecessarily put through max minutes early in the season and (b) the bench players often came up huge as a result of not just being in there at garbage time, which is why reserves such as John Paxson, Bobby Hansen and Steve Kerr live on in Chicago sports lore with key baskets in championship clinching games. Phil has done the same thing with the Lakers by regularly removing Kobe early and giving the second unit quality minutes with Lamar Odom running the offense. That means that Kobe and the rest of the starters are fresher (and already younger) than an older tapped-to-the-brink Celtics team and Luke Son-of-a-Bastard Walton or someone else of that nature will be primed to make a number of clutch shots in the series when Kobe is double or triple teamed. On the other side of the floor, Doc Rivers is acknowledged to have one of the most inconsistent rotations in the NBA (guys will play 30 minutes one game and then get DNPs for two weeks straight), which is a severe disadvantage when the Celtics are much more banged-up and can’t really depend on their stars to go 48 minutes every night.

Like I’ve said before, the basketball fan in me hopes that I’m wrong and that this becomes an NBA Finals that lives up to the hype. However, the basketball analyst in me believes that this will be a pretty easy stretch for a significantly superior Lakers team.

(Image from Sportslifer’s Weblog)