It’s been a funny old year for the Chicago Bulls. They entered the second full season of the DeMar DeRozan/Zach Lavine/Nikola Vucevic era on the back of an ignominious end to 2021-22. They demolished by the Milwaukee Bucks, losing their last three games of that five-game first round playoff series by an average of over 23 points.
Needing to demonstrate that this Bulls trio is capable of being an actual threat in the postseason, Chicago haven’t exactly set the world on fire for much of this season, and entering March had an uninspiring record of 28-34. With the playoffs nearing, however, they appear to be hitting their best form of the year.
Just a few games out from the playoffs, they’ve put themselves in a strong position to make the play-in tournament. But with positions six through ten far from settled in the Eastern Conference, who they’ll face if they get there is far from clear. And with the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics fighting it out for the number one seed, who the Bulls will play if they advance to the playoffs proper also remains a mystery.
Interestingly, the Bulls have a strong record this season against each of the teams they might face in the play-in and first round of the playoffs, should they get there. There are, however, a couple who they would much rather avoid if possible.
Assuming they make the play-in, the Bulls are almost certain to be joined there by three of the following: Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets. Against each of the latter three they have a winning record this season; Miami they’re 3-0 against, and the Nets they’ve beaten in two of three games, the latter of which was to the tune of 44 points. Against the Raptors, however, they haven’t had quite as much success, and the worst case scenario for the Bulls would be for positions to remain as they are. That would mean they’d have to head to Toronto in a win-or-go-home situation.
In three games in 2022-23, the Bulls have beaten the Raptors once, and that was in Chicago. Their two trips to Toronto have seen two defeats, the first by nine points and the second by six. They have, at least, been competitive, and it’s not exactly a blight on the Bulls given the Raptors have a 65% winning record at home this season. In an elimination play-in situation, however, being just competitive is not enough, and having to head to Toronto, where they’ve lost three consecutive games, would be their worst case-scenario.
If the Bulls do manage to make it through the play-in tournament, their reward will almost certainly be a matchup with either the Milwaukee Bucks or the Boston Celtics. Clearly neither of these is an easy matchup, but coming up against the Bucks would be what they’d most like to avoid.
The Bulls are relatively sound on defense, and don’t have any glaring holes at that end of the floor. Where they do tend to struggle is with the ball in hand, and as the 24th ranked offense in the NBA, coming up against the second ranked defense doesn’t bode well for them. Particularly when Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Jrue Holiday take their already-elite defense to another level in the postseason.
This is exactly what happened in the first round of the playoffs last year. In Game 2, which they won, the Bulls managed to put up 114 points. That game aside, they didn’t get past 100, with scores of 81, 86 and 95 seeing them comprehensively booted from the playoffs.
The 2022-23 version of the Bucks is not much different to last year. The Bulls might have averaged over 112 points in the three games between these two sides this year, but the aforementioned defensive pillars of the Bucks’ haven’t all suited up in any of those games, and come playoffs, the 2020-21 champs will find another defensive gear. Maybe, just maybe, the Bulls will be able to keep them from scoring too heavily, but in a seven-game series it’s hard to imagine what is a very mediocre offense being able to put up enough points to win even a couple of games, let alone four.
Of course, for the Bulls, the first step is to lock in a spot in the play-in tournament. With just a handful of games left to play in the regular season, they’re still far from assured of a place in the top ten in the East, though a strong March has made it likely they’ll see play-in action. If they do get there, a winning record against most of their potential opponents this year means a trip to Toronto would be their worst-case scenario.
If they do get through the one, or most likely two, play-in games they’d need to win to make the playoffs proper. Neither the Celtics or Bucks will make life easy for them. After last year’s demolition, however, the Bucks likely hold plenty of real estate in the Bulls’ collective mind, and with a lockdown defense to match, would be an extremely difficult matchup for Chicago.
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