A Bulls Market Once Again

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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)

No KG? It’s a Little Bit Rosier for the Bulls

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Last night, when the Bulls got locked into the seventh-seed position in the Eastern Conference for a first round matchup with the defending champion second-seed Celtics, I was pretty sure that we would have been witnessing a Boston sweep. Of course, this was assuming that Kevin Garnett (even a 50% healthy one) would be on the floor. With today’s announcement that KG will likely be sitting out of the entire playoffs, though, the Bulls’ loss to Toronto on Wednesday night (which prevented them from moving up to the sixth-seed) now looks fortuitous since they get a banged-up Boston team having to play the third-seed Magic and a healthy Dwight Howard. Granted, I still think that the Celtics have a substantial upper-hand since Paul Pierce will still be the best player on the floor and Ray Allen is what Ben Gordon could be if you added a heavy dose of consistency, but this has at least turned a series that was a virtually guaranteed sweep 24 hours ago into a scrum that could reasonably go up to 6 or 7 games.

The Bulls’ best chance to be competitive is to use their relative athleticism to push the tempo against a half-court-oriented Celtics offense and downgraded KG-less defense. This would be similar to the method employed by Scott Skiles’ Bulls team that swept the Heat (who happened to be that season’s defending champs) in the 2007 playoffs, albeit Vinny Del Negro’s group has better offensive weapons counterbalanced by a significantly worse defensive unit. After having a little bit of a lull in January and February, Derrick Rose has been rejuvenated in March and April (to the point where the point guard winning the Rookie of the Year is the biggest lock out of any of this year’s NBA individual awards) and John Paxson’s trade for John Salmons and Brad Miller has been a relative success. I’ll admit to having known virtually nothing about Salmons when he got sent over by the Kings (and I watch a lot of basketball), but his cockeyed jump-shot has grown on me to the point where his apparent recent injury issue has me much concerned than the fact that Luol Deng has been shut down. Salmons is one of a rare breed in the NBA: he’s a solid contributor and scorer that’s getting paid commensurate with the value he provides to the team. This means that he’ll be getting a Deng-like overpayment by the Bulls or some other team after next season (see also Kirk Hinrich and Ben Wallace). Regardless, I can’t believe that I’m writing that the health of some guy that I thought was the name of an entrée at Red Lobster a couple of months ago will end up swinging a game or two for the Bulls one way or the other against the defending champs, but it sure looks that way.

I still say that the Celtics will take the Bulls in 6 games (as opposed to 4 if Garnett were playing), although I also envision Derrick Rose having a couple of games that will serve the general public notice of his phenomenal skills (to the extent that it doesn’t know already) at the most difficult position to play in as a rookie in sports outside of quarterback. While D-Rose won’t put on a performance on par with Michael Jordan dropping 63 points in the old Boston Garden in the 1986 playoffs (against a Celtics team that would go on to win the NBA title that year), which led Larry Bird to famously proclaim that MJ was “God disguised as a basketball player” (and if Basketball Jesus makes a statement of that nature, you know it to be true), I think that it’s great that young point guard is going to get some playoff experience right away against a veteran club. From the moment that the Bulls won the NBA lottery last year, the focus of the organization has been to build around Rose to create a legitimate championship contender two or three years down the road. Outside of having Vinny Del Negro as coach (unfortunately, it’s 99% likely that we’re stuck with him for at least another season – I’m sure I’ll be posting a long overdue rant on this subject sooner rather than later), the Bulls are at least on the ascent where they should be set up nicely when the all-important 2010 free agent class hits the open market. Until then, I’ll enjoy some playoff basketball back in Chicago after a one-year hiatus.

(Image from Sports Illustrated)

Frank the Tank’s Super Bowl XLIII Parlay

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As much as I’d love to pick the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII solely because they feature the long snapper/placekicker combo from my college days (which goes to show you how little performance in college really matters in terms of predicting success at the pro level –  my undergraduate time in Champaign coincided with the worst four year stretch in Illini football history, including a one win season that was followed up by a winless season, yet the special teams tandem from that team are playing together for a chance at the world championship), I simply have to believe that Mike Tomlin is going to do what the Eagles should have done two weeks ago and make sure that Larry Fitgerald is covered by at least two men at all times without exception.  If Philly had used its second half zone defense for the entire length of the NFC Championship (instead of allowing three first half touchdowns by Fitzgerald), we would be looking at an all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl.  The bottom line is that Pittsburgh has proven from the the beginning of the season until now that it is one of the best defenses ever to play in the Super Bowl, particularly considering how much scoring is up this season.  I have faith that they will find a way to shut down Fitzgerald and, ergo, the Arizona offense in general.  At the same time, I have noticed that most of Vegas has dropped the line on the game from the Steelers being a 7-point favorite to only 6.5, which must mean that way too much money is flowing in Arizona’s direction right now.  I’ll take my chances betting against the rest of America here (and in favor of the house).  Since a single pick does not make a parlay, here’s a whole slew of sports predictions for Super Bowl Sunday (home teams in CAPS, if applicable, and all prop bets are actually offered in Vegas):

  • Pittsburgh Steelers (-6.5) over Arizona Cardinals
  • Under 46.5 combined points for the Super Bowl
  • ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI (-11.5) over Iowa Hawkeyes
  • LeBron James rebounds and assists (+5.5) over Arizona Cardinals points (-5.5)
  • Anquan Boldin receiving yards (+14.5) over Michigan State Spartans points (-14.5)
  • Highest scoring quarter by Steelers and Cardinals (+1.5) over Paul Pierce points (-1.5)
  • Under 38.5 for the jersey number of player to score the first touchdown

If I were anywhere near the Strip this weekend, I would be hammering those Super Bowl/basketball combo prop bets.  The long-promised Bulls midseason rant is forthcoming (it’s just going to end up being an extremely long piece).  In the meantime, enjoy the Super Bowl!

Frank the Tank’s NFL Football Parlay Record
Conference Championship Games: 1-1
Playoffs Overall: 6-3
Bears Games for the Season: 3-10-1
Overall Season: 27-25-3

(Image from Daylife)

Team Chemistry and Frank the Tank’s Football Parlay – 10/9/2008

I’m off to Napa Valley for the weekend, so the truncated parlay posts continue for at least one more week.  For your enjoyment, here’s a nasty dunk from last night by Celtics rookie Bill Walker:

While I was impressed with the dunk when I caught it on SportsCenter last night, what got me to rewind my DVR numerous times was the fantastic sight of the entire Celtics bench, particularly superstars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, going absolutely bonkers for a rookie to the point where they had to hold each other back from spilling onto to the court (in a preseason game, no less).  If you’ve read my blog for the past several years, you’ll know that I’m of the general opinion that winning creates team chemistry more than the other way around.  However, there’s something to be said for how tight the Celtics appear to be as a team – Kobe Bryant has posterized opposing players hundreds of times in the same manner as Walker but the rest of the Lakers are usually too busy hitting on the flavor of the month actress sitting courtside to notice.  At the same time, the sight of Andres Nocioni and Kirk Hinrich going nuts on the bench for a Tyrus Thomas dunk would be only slightly less awkward than this piece of history.  Anyway, here are this week’s football picks (home teams in CAPS):

COLLEGE FOOTBALL PARLAY
(1) INDIANA HOOSIERS (+6) over Iowa Hawkeyes
(2) MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS (+2.5) over Vanderbilt Commodores (It’s time to cash in your Vandy chips)
(3) ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI (-12.5) over Minnesota Golden Gophers

Frank the Tank’s College Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 3-0

Illini Games for the Season: 2-2
Overall Season: 10-7-1

NFL FOOTBALL PARLAY
(1) Green Bay Packers (+2.5) over SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
(2) DENVER BRONCOS (-3) over Jacksonville Jaguars
(3) Chicago Bears (-2.5) over ATLANTA FALCONS

Frank the Tank’s NFL Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 1-0-2

Bears Games for the Season: 1-31
Overall Season: 5-7-3