The Bulls are in a holding pattern, trying to maintain their position atop the Eastern Conference standings while Derrick Rose recuperates. Thus far, some spirited play from their second unit has been a huge help in keeping the Heat in the rearview mirror. Yet despite Chicago’s being the best road team in the conference, winning in Orlando would provide a significant boost in confidence for all of D-Rose’s supporting cast.
With Dwight Howard committing to stay put, the Magic are looser and more sure of who they are than they have been all season long. Moreover, getting safely through the trade-deadline enhances the security and mutual trust of the entire roster, and contributes to the players’ belief that the best is yet to come.
HOW THE BULLS CAN WIN
• Unless Rose undergoes a miraculous recovery, C.J. Watson will start at point guard. Watson is a savvy, experienced veteran who can routinely drain 3-balls, show quick helping hands on defense, and alertly draw charging fouls. Since Jameer Nelson is the motor of Orlando’s offense, Watson has the difficult task of both staying in his face to discourage bonus shots, and also to keep his opposite number from penetrating. If Watson can match Nelson point-for-point and assist-for-assist, the Bulls will cruise.
• The young legs of John Lucas III will provide relief for Watson. If Lucas is more of a scorer than a facilitator, his streaky long-range shooting and soft-touch floaters in the paint can be major factors. Plus, he plays better pressure defense than Watson so it could be that whichever of the triggermen has the hottest hand will get the most daylight. Given Nelson’s subpar defense, Chicago’s emergency point guards could still make the difference in the game.
• Luol Deng now becomes the primary scorer. Deng’s ability to knock down jumpers from all over the attack zone and to move decisively without the ball should easily trump the meager defense presented by either Ryan Anderson or Glen Davis. In addition, Deng’s stellar defense will likewise provide the Bulls with a significant advantage at this position. Look for Deng to be Chicago’s most dominant performer.
• Ronnie Brewer is a tough-enough defender who has to limit Jason Richardson’s point output. At the other end, Brewer must hit an occasional jumper and take advantage of Richardson’s inferior defense with determined cuts from the weak-side.
• Carlos Boozer no longer does much damage in the low-post, but his virtually unblockable, high-release jumpers have to be on target — especially when operating against the imaginary defense of Hebo Turkoglu. However, Boozer must absolutely tag Turkoglu on the nether side of the 3-point line and also make sure to force him to drive right. Davis will try to bump and bang Boozer, but with little effect. Even as his offense becomes more and more limited, Boozer remains a sure-handed rebounder who must help prevent Howard from dominating the glass.
• Joakim Noah has the difficult assignment of dealing with Howard mano-a-mano. He must use his advantages of speed and quickness to counteract Howard’s edge in bulk and strength. Fronting Howard can be effective with the proper weak-side help and ball-pressure exerted on the entry-passer. The Magic’s rock-steady 3-point shooters generally makes double-teaming Howard a costly tactic so Noah has to move a half-step back when DH does receive the ball, play him for the spin, and expect help when he gallops to the middle for his right-handed hook.
• Whatever Noah contributes on offense — on the run, off of putbacks or swift baseline cuts, perhaps bagging a couple of his one-and-a-half-handed jumpers — could put Chicago over the top.
• The Bulls’ second unit is one of the best in the league. Kyle Korver and J.J. Redick will get dizzy chasing one another through and around multiple screens, curls, and backdoor cuts. Korver simply has to out-trey Redick.
• Taj Gibson is Chicago’s X-factor. He drops mid-range jumpers, runs the court, pounds the offensive glass, and is always moving. A top-notch game from him would ensure victory.
• Omer Asik has to compliment Noah’s quick-footed defense against Howard with some selective mass and force. Plus the big guy has deceptively quick (if not very adhesive) hands.
• As the top-rated rebounding team in the NBA, the Bulls all-hands-on-deck coordinated effort has to overwhelm Orlando’s unilateral board man.
• If the parlay of Noah and Asik can even moderately contain Howard’s interior scoring, then Chicago’s scrappy, hustling defense will be able to tag Orlando’s dangerous 3-point practitioners.
• Orlando excels at around-the-horn passes, yet their interior passwork can be iffy. This weakness coincides with Chicago’s ability to ambush passes in the paint.
• Because Noah and Deng are superior passes, high-low set-ups can be effective when/if Boozer occupies the low post.
• The Magic tend to get impatient on offense, forever seeking to hoist too-quick 3-balls. Aggressive, disciplined defense can force these ill-advised shots to be taken under heavy-duty pressure.
• Since Orlando’s offense is relatively simple — Howard in the pivot augmented by long-distance dialing — the defensive-minded Tom Thibodeau should be able to devise a suffocating game plan.
HOW THE MAGIC CAN WIN
• Howard has to own the glass, overpower Noah, out-talent Asik, make his free throws, and execute timely rotations on defense so as to turn the Bulls prospective layups into jump shots and/or fan-scattering blocks. In other words, Howard has to take over the game.
• Nelson must make his pull-up treys, routinely turn the corners on high-screens, and make accurate kick-out passes. Since Watson lacks the foot-speed (and the fully-healed left-ankle sprain) to simply zip to the hoop, he must rely on his cross-overs to get his defenders off-balance. Therefore, Nelson has to be ready to move laterally in a hurry. Plus, Watson’s temporary semi-lameness makes him vulnerable to being beaten off the dribble. And, as is his wont, Nelson must fulfill his role as Orlando’s most reliable shooter in the clutch.
• Anderson needs to move into open spaces and fill the net with 3-pointers. On defense, he can crowd Deng since his opposite number isn’t a great finisher in a crowd.
• Turkoglu has to bag some of his 3-pointers to force Boozer to play defense away from the hoop. However, Boozer’s defense is atrocious wherever he plays. Since Boozer is also slow to recover after making defensive rotations, Turkoglu has to move into the unoccupied spaces where Boozer should have been. Boozer can also be defended chest-to-chest and allowed to drive (especially with his right hand) into Howard’s windmill defense.
• Jason Richardson has to realize that Brewer’s jumpers are fatally flawed, and that he’s more of an offensive threat when he attacks the rim via dive- and baseline-cuts. Like all of Orlando’s wingmen, Richardson’s magic stroke has to be evident.
• Davis has to play hard and play smart. That means not settling for quick jumpers, ignoring the refs, waiting for the game to come to him, and climbing both boards.
• Redick is a shorter, slightly more mobile version of Korver. Shooting is his specialty and must absolutely be on-target.
• Chris Duhon will be called upon to limit his turnovers, play acceptable defense, and make one or two shots of his own.
• Even with Rose down and out, the Bulls have a deeper bench than the Magic. It is therefore incumbent upon the likes of Davis, Redick, Duhon, and the vanishing game of Quentin Richardson to at least play Chicago’s subs on an equitable basis.
• Because Orlando eventually lives or dies by the 3-pointer, they must avoid croaking when the game is on the line.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR
- Because Howard frequently fails to move his feet to meet entry passes, count how many incoming passes Noah can tip.
- Also keep track of how many moving screens Howard gets away with.
- Which team’s screen/roll offense will be more effective than the other team’s screen/roll defense?
- The more layups Nelson makes, the greater the chances of the home team winning.
- How many gimme fouls will Chicago commit to prevent Howard from shooting layups? And how many times will he be passed the ball in the endgame?
Charley Rosen is a former pro basketball player and coach and author of 16 books on basketball.