8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Washington -1.5
Eastern Conference heavyweights clash in the Nation’s Capital, as the Washington Wizards host the Chicago Bulls in a rematch of last year’s playoff series. When these teams met during the 2014 postseason, the young, upstart Wizards slew the more experienced Bulls in five games, pulling off what many in the league refer to as the five-game sweep. However, that particular Chicago team looks like a distant memory compared to their current incarnation; with Derrick Rose missing the entire season due to knee surgery, Tom Thibodeau’s charges limped into the postseason with an ailing Joakim Noah and without Luol Deng, whom was traded midway through the campaign. No folks, these Bulls have a completely different look about them; on top of welcoming the long-awaited return of a healthy Rose, Management went out and acquired Pau Gasol in Free Agency, giving the team a sorely needed option in the low post, while also adding the likes of international phenom Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott in the Draft. Now with a quarter of the term in the books, Chicago (25-11, 1st in Central) looks like one of the favorites, if not the favorite, to represent the Eastern Conference come June in the NBA Finals. After a small grace period to gel, the Central Division leaders have since won seventeen out of their last twenty-three outings, including ten out of eleven at one point. As impressive as they’ve looked at times, it is clear that there is still plenty of work left to do; an impressive 114-105 victory over Houston on Monday was spoiled by a disappointing 97-77 debacle at home against Utah, who were just 12-23 entering the contest. You wouldn’t have known how vastly improved this team was on the offensive end by watching their putrid performance Wednesday Night, as they could only muster a miserable 33.3% shooting from the field, including 6-of-20 from beyond the arc (30.0%). It’s not as if there was anyone of merit missing the game, as Rose, Gasol, Butler, and Noah all partook in the action. As it turned out, none of them were very good; Rose and Noah accounted for a mere eight points on 3-of-18 shooting from the floor (16.7%), with more turnovers (six) than assists (5), while both Butler and Gasol shot just 5-of-13 apiece. In fact, the only Bull that had anything deemed remotely close to offensive success, was backup big man Taj Gibson, who totaled fifteen points off the bench on 6-of-10 shooting (60.0%). With that said, the most curious stat of all was the fact that they were able to shoot such a low percentage despite assisting on seventeen of their twenty-eight field goals; usually when you move the ball that well, you get good looks at the rim, but it was apparent that it mattered very little whether they were open or not. Defensively, the typically staunch Bulls suffered greatly due to their inability to throw the ball into the ocean, permitting the young Jazz to shoot a solid 47.4% from the field, assisting on twenty-one of their thirty-seven field goals.
It really was strange seeing how bad Chicago looked on the offensive end Wednesday Night, given the strides they’ve made thus far. Ranking in the bottom fourth in the league in most offensive categories over the past two seasons, the Bulls were oftentimes a hard team to watch when the ball was in their hands; with Rose rehabbing from a litany of knee injuries, there was a dearth of creativity, as nobody seemed capable of creating their own shot, let alone one for somebody else. Simply put, no team in the NBA had to work harder for a shot than these guys. Inserting a skilled big man such as Gasol into the post and surrounding him with capable shooters would have improved this team exponentially even if Rose hadn’t returned to form, but the numbers indicate that these guys are quickly becoming a force on both ends of the floor; the Windy City denizens have averaged 102.4 points (4th Overall) on 44.6% shooting from the field (19th Overall), including 47.6% from within the three-point arc (23rd Overall) and 35.8% from beyond it (11th Overall), while dishing out 21.8 assists (14th Overall). The ball movement has been more fluid, and the spacing is great, but the biggest difference between these Bulls and their predecessors has been pace; last season, they operated at the second-slowest pace in the league, averaging 90.2 possessions per 48 minutes of play, but this season they have sped things up to the point where they are logging 93.5 possessions per 48 minutes, good for sixteenth overall. That means more possessions and more opportunities for an emerging offense, while being able to successfully force the tempo puts all kinds of pressure on their opponent’s defense, which is something they haven’t been able to do much at all in three years. But where there this really becomes effective is at the charity stripe; Chicago has long been one of the most adept teams at getting to the free-throw line, and more possessions has translated to more free-throws, as they have attempted (989) and made (772) the second-most freebies in the league. Furthermore, in today’s game where efficiency has become king, they rank second overall in Free-Throw/Field Goal Attempt Ratio, getting to the line on a healthy 26.0% of their shots. Though Rose’s return is impossible to overlook, the presence of Gasol has morphed this unit into a very well-rounded five. Throughout his career, Gasol has worked best when playing with another big, particularly one with a mean streak that is willing to do the dirty work. Have you ever met Joakim Noah? These two look like they were always meant to play together, as the former Defensive Player of the Year has paired with the Spaniard to give Thibodeau arguably the league’s most complete tandem of bigs. In addition to being an All-Star caliber scorer in the post (18.1 points), Gasol is one of the best passing bigs that the game has ever seen (2.7 assists), and when teamed with Noah (3.8 assists), who is also a very deft passer of the ball, the Bulls enjoy some of the best interior ball movement you will find. And is it no wonder that with better distribution of the basketball, that Butler is having the campaign of his career? The impending Free Agent is making Management’s decision a very difficult one, as he has posted career-highs in points (21.7), field goal percentage (47.8%), three-point percentage (35.1%), rebounds (6.3), assists (3.2), and PER (22.3).
Meanwhile, the team that many people pointed towards being on the cusp of breaking through is doing just that as the Wizards (24-11, 2nd in Southeast) are establishing themselves as a power-broker in the Eastern Conference. After a long postseason drought (five years), Washington returned to the Playoffs with a vengeance last year, disposing of the Bulls in five games, while pushing the Pacers to the verge of elimination in the Conference Semifinals. One of the youngest teams in the NBA, they gained invaluable postseason experience, and now face the expectations of taking the next step in their evolution. To facilitate the process, Management acquired grizzled veterans such as Paul Pierce, Rasual Butler, and Kris Humphries to support their young star-studded backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal, and rugged pair of bigs Nene Hilario and Marcin Gortat. In essence, this is a deeper, more experienced team than it’s predecessor, which should spell trouble for their contemporaries in the East. Winners of thirteen out of sixteen games at one point, Randy Wittman’s charges came back to Earth a bit, dropping three consecutive losses to the West’s finest such as Dallas (114-87), Oklahoma City (109-102), and defending champion San Antonio (101-92). Since then, they have strung together back-to-back victories, including Wednesday’s 101-91 triumph over the reeling New York Knicks. The hosts jumped on their opponent early, outscoring the Knicks 30-21 in the First Quarter before leading 53-41 at Halftime, never relinquishing the lead over the final thirty minutes of play. Washington shot a stellar 51.3% from the field, including 8-of-16 from three (50.0%), assisting on a whopping twenty-eight of their thirty-nine field goals. Beal and Wall accounted for thirty points on 9-of-19 shooting (47.4%), knocking down five of their seven three-pointers (71.4%), while dishing out ten assists, and racking up three steals. However, it was Nene who owned the paint, scoring a game-high twenty points on 8-of-13 shooting (61.5%) in just 23:50 of action, with six rebounds, four assists, and a steal.
The key to their success thus far has been how they’ve seamlessly incorporated all the new pieces they’ve added in the Offseason. Pierce, Butler, and Humphries have all been in the league for quite a while, and have each brought something different to the table. As a result, the Wizards have been extremely balanced, even with arguably the league’s best young backcourt among their number; six different players have scored in double-figures, with Wittman’s rotation going a many as twelve deep, with a stunning thirteen players logging over ten minutes of play. Though that number is skewed a bit due to Beal missing the first nine games of the season, it’s clear that Washington is not without a bevy of options at their disposal, a valuable commodity come Playoff time. Surprisingly, they’ve played at a slower pace than last year (93.3), leading to a dip on the offensive end of the court (99.8 points), even though they’ve been one of the most efficient teams in the league with the ball in their hands, shooting a stellar 47.3% from the field (3rd Overall) and a blistering 39.3% from downtown (1st Overall). It’s a sign of maturity for a team that relied far too much on forcing turnovers so they could get out in transition, now proving to be capable of exploiting the opposition’s weakness patiently in the halfcourt. Again, having Beal and Wall doesn’t hurt; at 21 and 24 years of age, the Wizards could have these guys for the next decade, which is a tantalizing prospect given their combined output of 32.4 points, 8.0 rebounds, 13.3 assists, and 3.6 steals. Coupled with Nene and Gortat, good for 22.6 points and 12.9 rebounds a night respectively, and you have a nucleus built to win both now and tomorrow. With all that said, by slowing the tempo down, they have improved immensely on the defensive end of the floor ranking in the top third of the NBA in a plethora of categories. Thus far, Wittman’s defense has yielded just 97.3 points (4th Overall) on 44.5% shooting from the field (11th Overall), including 47.9% shooting from within the three-point line (7th Overall) and 34.5% from beyond it (9th Overall), while pulling down 42.8 rebounds (19th Overall), and permitting a league-low 17.9 assists (1st Overall). Furthermore, they rank ninth overall in defensive effective field goal percentage (48.9%) and fifth in defensive rebounding percentage (77.2%), along with twelfth in turnover percentage (14.0%). And speaking of turnovers, they still manage to get after their opponents, forcing 14.9 turnovers (13th Overall), 7.9 of which are steals (13th Overall).