DEERFIELD, Ill. (AP) Never mind all they overcame. The only obstacle that matters now for the Chicago Bulls is the one in front of them.
The Bulls head into Sunday’s playoff opener against the Washington Wizards as one of the hottest teams in the NBA. They overcame significant hurdles to win 48 games and secure home-court advantage in the first round.
They lost Derrick Rose to a season-ending injury to his right knee in November after he sat out last season because of surgery on his left knee, and they traded away one of their top remaining players in Luol Deng.
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Not only did the Bulls get by, they started to flourish just when it looked as though they might come apart. With 36 victories since Jan. 1, the Bulls led the Eastern Conference and captured the fourth seed.
After losing to Miami in the second round last year, Chicago is looking to make a run at the Heat and Indiana Pacers this time around.
The Wizards might have something to say about that after winning 44 games to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2008 behind John Wall.
”I think a lot of people are writing us off, not saying we really have a chance,” Wall said. ”We know what’s ahead of us. We’ve got a couple of young guys who haven’t played in the playoffs, but we have great veterans – one that has won a championship (Trevor Ariza), other guys that have been in the playoffs for a while – and they’re giving us advice.”
Bulls center Joakim Noah rejoined the team after missing Friday’s practice. He was in New York after the death of friend and mentor Tyrone Green, who played a key role in his development as a basketball player.
Here are five things to look for in this best-of-7 series.
WALL-ING OFF THE PAINT: The Bulls know they need to keep Wall out of the paint. They also know it won’t be easy.
The 23-year-old point guard was an All-Star for the first time this season and is about to get his first taste of the playoffs after missing out his first three years.
”Every aspect of your defense is going to be five guys tied together,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. ”You’re not going to slow him down one on one. … His speed is terrific. He makes and misses, but he pushes hard.”
Wall averaged 19.3 points and led the league in total assists. He also committed more turnovers than anyone else, and while he’s improved his outside shot, he still converted only about 35 percent of his 3-pointers.
The defensive work starts with Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin, but they’ll need help.
SIDELINE MATCHUP: One thing to watch is the chess match on the sideline. Thibodeau is 205-107 and has led the Bulls to the playoffs in all four seasons. Then there’s Randy Wittman, 191-329 in parts of eight seasons with Cleveland, Minnesota and Washington and in the postseason for the first time.
THE SERIES: The Wizards beat the Bulls twice in a five-day span in January, but Chicago took the most recent meeting two weeks ago. The Bulls simply clamped down defensively in a 96-78 win at Washington. Augustin scored 25 for Chicago, hitting six 3-pointers, and Nene missed that game for the Wizards with a sprained left knee.
NENE’S KNEE: Nene, who missed 21 games late in the season because of the knee injury, was wearing a red, white and blue brace at practice Saturday. Wittman hinted he might keep using him off the bench because it worked out fine that way down the stretch.
Nene had little to say about the knee.
THE EXPERIENCE FACTOR: The Bulls are making their sixth straight playoff appearance. Edge, Chicago? Yes, according to Wizards center Marcin Gortat.
His advice for players making their postseason debut?
”Eat well and just pick a good suit,” Gortat said. ”A lot of people are going to be watching you.”