The Competition: Chicago Bulls

This is competition #2 in the Eastern Conference.

Three years after taking Derrick Rose as their first overall pick in 2008, the Chicago Bulls did something they haven’t done since a guy named Michael Jordan was electrifying the Windy City and the NBA…getting to the Eastern Conference Finals. They only lost 3 times in their first 11 games of last year’s playoffs going through the Indiana Pacers and the Atlanta Hawks before they ran into a buzz saw against the Miami Heat, 4-1.

But losing to Miami didn’t bring too much frustration to Chicago as the team was able to reach the Conference Finals without a true post player or a secondary go-to guy. That’s probably because Rose’s MVP season has brought back that air of winning that’s been stale since 1998.

With Rose, the Bulls are a team on the rise in the east and has the potential to be a familiar name when it comes to any talks of crowning an NBA champion.

However, will last season’s momentum be enough to carry a team that’s still doesn’t have enough post-season battle scars all the way to the Finals? And will Chicago be able to win their first title in 14 years against the team that nearly mirrored their dynastic past if the two teams clash in June?

Matching Up

POINT GUARDS: This is where the troubles starts and ends for the Lakers. Quite frankly, Mike Brown‘s defensive mind will be heavily tested against the Bulls. You might say that Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook will be the practice run for him, but Rose has more layers into his game than Westbrook could ever admit he lacks in his. Then again, Brown strikes me as a guy who’s always prepared. But we’ll see. Advantage: BULLS

SHOOTING GUARDS: Much like the Memphis Grizzlies, the Bulls have a list of defenders they can throw at Kobe Bryant. Ronnie Brewer will most likely get the first shot before Keith Bogans and rookie Jimmy Butler try their luck. Of the 3, Butler is the one I’m most interested in seeing. But, let’s remember that these guys are facing the always tough to defend Kobe who, if healthy in the Finals, is still salivating for more championship rings. Advantage: LAKERS

SMALL FORWARDS: One of the biggest reasons why the Lakers would return to the Finals is the defense and overall contribution of Metta World Peace. By this time, he would’ve already faced a number of possible players more impressive than Luol Deng, such as Kevin Durant, Rudy Gay, Brandon Roy, Manu Ginobili, and Blake Griffin (hey, it could happen). Part of Chicago’s post-season problems is seeing Deng not taking it upon himself to push himself harder. It’s a possibility that he’ll be a huge factor in the Bulls making it this far. But against Metta, he’ll need to be more creative in getting his points. That is if he gets enough touches to even matter much on offense. Advantage: LAKERS

POWER FORWARDS: If you’ve seen Carlos Boozer in the playoffs enough against Pau Gasol, you’d know that he doesn’t have the slightest chance of winning this matchup. He simply just doesn’t have the size, smarts, toughness and defensive chops to really compete with Gasol. Like Deng, he relies on his teammates to pick up the slack for him. Advantage: LAKERS

CENTERS: Joakim Noah may not be as apt offensively and physically imposing as Andrew Bynum, but his heart and relentless effort on the court and on the boards will keep Bynum on his toes and heels. It’s imperative for Andrew to not only match Joakim’s intensity but to also continue attacking him in the post. Keeping Noah on the bench with foul trouble will open up the paint for Bynum and any other Laker who wants to score near the basket. Andrew certainly has all the necessary tools to put him there often. Advantage: LAKERS

BENCHES: The Bulls have one of the league’s deepest bench, and with guys like Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver, and C.J. Watson running their reserves, scoring is never a problem. That’s why Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes and Steve Blake better bring their “A” game and can’t afford to get caught up with anything else besides making sure they play solid defense on top of doing what they do best. But their versatility and collective experience could very well be the difference in the end. That is IF they stay consistent from the beginning. But one thing is certain, the Bulls reserve doesn’t have anybody who can affect the game the way Odom could. Advantage: LAKERS

COACHING: Tim Thibodeau is one head coach Mike Brown hasn’t had the chance of playing chess games with. Brown may be a defense-first kind of guy, but Thibodeau is widely considered as a defensive guru. His ring as an assistant to Doc Rivers, 2011 Coach of the Year award and guiding both the Celtics and the Bulls to be the league’s top defensive team can certainly attest to that. Then again, Brown can say the very same things. Advantage: TOSS-UP

The Series Changers

LAKERS: Pau Gasol
With undersized forwards defending him on the block, Pau should worry Thibodeau a lot more than when he had Kevin Garnett at his disposal. There’s a chance that he’ll put Kurt Thomas on Gasol, but that would take away some much-needed offense on the other end. Look for Thibodeau to challenge Pau on the defensive end to help negate some of Pau’s advantages. Boozer still has a nice mid-range touch, and Gibson can use his quickness and athleticism to score around Gasol. But with Pau’s length and the Lakers’ interior defense, I’m not sure how long and how effective that strategy will prove to be for Chicago.

BULLS: Derrick Rose
He was the reason why the Bulls got within a series of the Finals and how the Heat was able to dismantle them in the playoffs. Much like Dwight Howard with Orlando, everything starts and ends with Rose in Chicago. But against the Lakers, he doesn’t have a Lebron James to worry about guarding him. However, if Kobe’s knee doesn’t become troublesome, expect Bryant to take on the challenge of slowing him down (and what a monumental task that’s going to be).

Watch Out For…

Taj Gibson: If Thibodeau puts more faith on this guy, Gibson is the kind of player who can bring energy to the team and keep the United Center rocking. He’s active around the boards and can score with a jumper or by making a B-line to the rim. He showed what he can do in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals by posting 11 points and 3 rebounds in just 12 minutes.

Key Matchup

Andrew Bynum vs. Joakim Noah: These are the 2 guys who will be counted on heavily for their shot-blocking and rebounding more so than their scoring. It will be crucial for Noah to stay aggressive against Bynum without drawing too much attention from the officials. If he gets himself in foul trouble often, there’s no one else who can contend with Andrew for them. Likewise, if Bynum plays uninspired basketball on both sides of the floor, he’ll be creating more pressure for both Gasol and Bryant to score near the basket without worrying about Noah tracking them down.

Keys For The Lakers

Intensity: Make no mistake. The Bulls will continue to use their younger legs, speed and quickness until the Lakers can prove they can deal with them consistently. Hustle and a take-no-prisoners attitude from start to end in each game will be one of their major must-haves the entire series.

Defense: Rose will be the tip of the spear of the offense for the Bulls each and every time down, and they know the Lakers have no one who can keep up with him one-on-one. It will be imperative for the Lakers to play solid, smart defense AS A TEAM to survive.

Rebounding: Against the Lakers, it will be suicide for Chicago to rely on their post offense to win the title. That means the Lakers will see a steady diet of outside shooting, pick-and-whatever and crashing of the offensive boards from the Bulls to diversify their attack. If the Lakers play their cards right defensively, there should be a ton of bricks clanking off of the rim. The Bulls are an excellent rebounding team, so the Lakers better get to those missed shots before they do unless they have no desire in raising another banner at Staples Center on opening night.

The Outcome

The Heat-Bulls series had plenty of tape session materials for the Lakers to absorb. Hopefully, they’ll pay close attention to the fact that the Bulls struggle mightily without their leader being an efficient contributor on offense.

Rose isn’t just their superstar. He’s their heart and soul. If the Lakers can find ways of making everything difficult and impossible for Rose, they have a great chance of winning their 18th title. But, that’s obviously easier said than done.

It will take a total team effort and a superb defensive scheme from Brown to make that happen. The concern there is obviously the overall health of the team. Age will always be a steady presence in every equation for the Lakers, but injuries add another level of problems that have the impact of derailing everything the team had worked for all the way to the Finals no matter if there’s a shortened season or not.

Expect nothing easy for the Lakers against the Bulls. Remember, if Chicago gets to the Finals, Miami most likely have paid for their tickets. That means that either Rose have figured out to score against Lebron or their defense stopped the South Beach Trio from scoring in the second half of each game.

Either way, it won’t be good news for the Lakers.

Then again, we could say the same thing for the Lakers. If the Lakers have gone this far, it will be because of their defense, their renewed hunger and, of course, most of the core, if any, have no major injury to talk about.

Let’s not forget that it took a barrage of threes and an ironclad team effort for Dallas to sweep an uninspired Laker team last season. There are other factors that went the way of the Mavs, of course. But, Chicago doesn’t have shooters, veterans, a 7-footer who can make clutch shots on the wrong foot or a big frontline to begin with.

The Bulls are a perimeter team that lacks interior size and will count on the play of their superstar point guard even more to win the title. Yeah, they are expected to play tough defense, but how tough can they really make scoring difficult against a title veteran team that possesses 2 dominant post players, last season’s top 6th man, and one of the most competitive and best player to have ever played the game?

And when the Lakers are on, even Thibodeau can say he’d seen what can happen.