The Chicago Bulls' Hollywood script of a season has had everything except what is ultimately the only thing.
Besides hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy, at this point what else is there?
Without taking the luster from the eventual announcement, Derrick Rose is likely to be named the league's Most Valuable Player before Game 2 on Wednesday at the United Center. The strange sheepish denials of both the league and Rose himself remind me of the last year my parents tried to keep up the ruse of the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. It was a done deal and we all knew it, but hey, wouldn't it be more fun if we all pretended we didn't?
On Sunday, the NBA announced that first-year head coach Tom Thibodeau had won the Coach of the Year award for leading the Bulls to a 62-20 record. Thibodeau was gracious but focused, as always, on his team's next game. ESPN Chicago's Jon Greenberg and the Chicago Tribune's resident music-lover/beat writer K.C. Johnson both had very nice profiles on Thibs' first season as a coach.
Best regular season record. MVP. COY. A hometown hero leading the team. A rookie coach who toiled until his opportunity came. A team that plays for one other.
It's how you would write the script, right?
The thing of it is, it's only a neat story, a consolation, unless these playoffs conclude with a happy ending. And with every award, every smile and back pat that accompanies this kind of regular season success, is the increasing size of the bummer that would result from anything less than the franchise's seventh championship.
That's the thought that struck me as the Bulls enter the second round of the playoffs as the near-unanimous favorite against the Atlanta Hawks.
Indeed, the Bulls are expected to beat the Hawks, especially given the recent news of former Bull and current Hawk Kirk Hinrich's severe hamstring pull that will likely keep him from playing in the series.
Blog-a-Bull has another Q&A with the enemy's resident blogger, this time with the brilliant Peach Tree Hoops, who are clearly pessimistic about their team's chances.
Chicago took two of the three meetings with the Hawks this season, with the lone win coming in Atlanta after the Bulls blew a 17-point halftime lead. The Hinrich injury decimates an already-below average perimeter defense. In fact, in terms of his replacement's ability, Hinrich may have been the Hawks' most valuable player.
6th man, and former Bull, Jamal Crawford will likely continue to come off the bench as a scoring threat, while second year guard Jeff Teague, who played exactly two meaningful minutes in the Hawks' opening round series versus Orlando, will take over the starting role and draw the defensive assignment of one Derrick Rose.
Boozer suffered a turf-toe injury in the series-clinching victory over the Pacers, worsening what had already been a disastrous series for the Bulls expensive free agent power forward. Boozer has improved over the weekend, participating in his first practice since the injury on Sunday. According to ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell, Boozer will likely play in Game 1 on Monday night.
"Basically he just did a little bit more shooting," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "He's moving a lot better. He did his lifting and he was on the bike. He's feeling a lot better. We'll see what he can do [Monday]. Each day he's gotten better and better, so we're encouraged by that. We'll see if he can get through the shootaround [Monday], then we'll let him warm up [Monday] night and see if he's ready to go."
As has been written several times here, the Bulls know that without a productive Boozer in the lineup, it will be hard to make it out of the East much less win a championship. While injuries are never something to celebrate, there is something to the idea that Boozer's injury will help. On the one hand it takes the pressure off of Boozer, providing a built-in pardon for any poor play going forward, and Thibodeau now has both the reason and the motivation to extend the minutes of Taj Gibson and, potentially, Omer Asik.
Atlanta beat the Orlando Magic in six games, but rather than dominating, the Hawks presented a unique matchup that put pressure on another team's weak link, in this case Orlando's perimeter players. Even with their dependence on the transcendent abilities of Rose, the Bulls represent a much more complete team that should be able to effectively score the ball by playing inside out through Rose's and Deng's drives and Noah's passing.
Chicago's defense should be the ultimate foil, however, as the Hawks can be bottled up and enticed to take long two-pointers after dribbling the shot clock out. For all the Bulls' offensive struggles against the Pacers, their defense was largely locked in after Game 1, especially in end-of-game situations when fueling the Bulls' multiple comebacks.
Joakim Noah was both literally and figuratively at the center of that defensive effort, rebounding as his teammates have come to expect over the past few years, and guarding the paint as well as any center in the league not named Dwight Howard. Noah 's reemergence came at the perfect time for the Bulls, filling the void left by Boozer's struggles.
Rose, if he can regain the consistency on his shot that eluded him at times in the first round, has a chance to dominate both Teague and Crawford, and possibly the series at large. Hawks' #1 option Joe Johnson will try to check Rose at times, but as Atlanta will need him for scoring and Johnson isn't fast enough to keep up with Mr. Fast Don't Lie, that will likely exist only in limited minutes.
Former Florida Gators teammates' Joakim Noah and Al Horford will guard each other on the block. Horford clearly won the one matchup this year (Noah missed the other two with injury), but Noah has taken his game to another level in these playoffs. If Atlanta is to have any success in this series, Horford will need to win this matchup every night.
Top defender Luol Deng will draw both Joe Johnson and forward Josh Smith, depending upon matchup situations. Keith Bogans and Ronnie Brewer will pitch in as well, while Kyle Korver may not see the floor until Crawford is inserted or in late game offensive possessions for the Bulls.
As well as Atlanta matched up against the Magic, the Bulls match up equally well against the Hawks. Chicago will need to play better than they did against the Pacers, but even so it is hard to imagine a situation in which the Bulls lose four of seven games to Atlanta. With accolades accumulating and expectations rising with them, anything less than a convincing victory will be note-worthy for this precocious team.
Prediction: Bulls win the series in five.
Game 1 tips-off on Monday evening at 7:00 p.m. CDT on TNT. (Note -- there's no more local TV for this series, every remaining game will be on one of the national networks.)