Playoff predictions: Bulls vs. Wizards

Rob Grabowski-US PRESSWIRE

Just because neither team has a prayer of reaching the Finals doesn't mean it can't be compelling, but ask me again when it's 34-32 at halftime of Game 1.

4) Chicago Bulls v. 5) Washington Wizards (Wizards 2-1)

I'm genuinely excited to watch this series, but I'll be damned if I know what's going to happen.

Maybe I'm excited because I don't know.

On one hand you've got the John Wall-Bradley Beal backcourt of the Wizards, which can score with anyone, but the Bulls have the defensive tandem of Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler to neutralize them. Washington has a soft defensive duo of bigs in Marcin Gortat and Nene, but Joakim Noah isn't a huge scorer and Carlos Boozer is having a terrible year. Mike Dunleavy and Trevor Ariza have been surprisingly not awful, both playing far more than expected thanks to injuries, trades, and grossly underperforming rookies.

I could've given you a hundred guesses back in November who the Bulls' leading scorer would be coming into their first-round series and you still wouldn't have come close. Derrick Rose? A distant memory again, gone after ten games after suffering another knee injury. Luol Deng? Dispatched to Cleveland for a bag of second-round beans, since he was justifiably sore that Chicago so badly bungled his medical situation last May and the Bulls knew he'd be leaving as a free agent without compensation.

The answer wasn't Boozer, Noah, Butler or even Dunleavy either, but rather D.J. Augustin, a fellow who didn't even begin his season in Chicago but was acquired by the desperate Bulls, who were in tatters after Rose went down once more. He was made available by the Raptors after displaying the same miserable form for them that he displayed for the Pacers last playoffs, particularly in a series against Miami where he was basically the Heat's secret weapon.

Augustin hasn't been a savior or anything for Chicago--he still shot only 42 percent overall--but he shot 41 percent from downtown, with a respectable 2.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. His defense was still poor relative to his rotation peers, but somebody has to score the points, and if not for Augustin the Bulls would've been in dire straits indeed, no matter how many fancy passes Noah pulled from his derriere.

Aside from Augustin and Noah, the odds-on favorite to garner both First-Team All-NBA recognition and the Defensive Player of the Year award (though ironically the second honor will come to him more for the attention his passing received, similar to the way you have to be a pretty good hitter to win a Gold Glove award in baseball), the other Bull worth mentioning is Taj Gibson, the front-runner--wrongly--for Sixth Man of the Year. He plays most tight fourth quarters ahead of Boozer, but that's not a big story since it's been going on for years with Tom Thibodeau in charge. It will be on Boozer to slow down Nene, who's been as effective as ever since returning to action for the Wizards.

On a squad where just about everyone has a reputation for being more of an offensively-oriented player than a defensive one, save for Ariza, it's most surprising that the Wizards finished ninth in defensive points-per-possession but only 16th offensively. Even more bizarre, their two most reliable defenders have been Gortat and Nene, dudes who've never met a pick-and-roll they couldn't botch. Nevertheless, they've been solid on both ends, and the late-season acquisitions of Andre Miller, Drew Gooden and Al Harrington stabilized a bench where the youngsters were getting murdered nightly. Martell Webster hasn't had a good season, but he's capable of hitting a few threes when you don't account for him.

As a devotee of the Western conference who doesn't pay much attention to the JV circuit, I think the series boils down, perhaps too simplistically, to Wall vs. Noah. Whichever star plays better will propel his squad onward for a meeting with the Pacers. On the few occasions I've had the chance to watch Chicago, I've yet to come away impressed. They're resilient, they fight hard, and they're hard as hell to score on, but they're so subpar offensively it's just hard to stomach them. Even worse, they're a team of veterans. Outside of Butler this is as good as they're ever gonna be, unless Rose returns to form, which is a long shot at this point. There are rumors that Carmelo Anthony is headed there, but I'll believe it when I see it.

The Wizards have youth on their side, at least in the backcourt, and I think it's Wall's chance to really break out on the national stage. He's just too quick for Hinrich to deal with, let alone Augustin. If he can hit a decent percentage of his threes and get the bigs good looks, I think the Wizards have just enough talent to squeeze through against an undermanned Chicago side.

Fun Stat: In a micro-sample of eight games, Jimmer Fredette has managed a +34.3 net rating, 124.1 on offense, 89.8 on defense. Play him, Thibs!

Prediction: Wizards in six.

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