Published April 28, 2012
| Sports Network
Be careful what you wish for.
The Philadelphia 76ers match up so poorly against the Miami Heat that they were hoping to face top-seeded Chicago in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the same team that finished four games above the Heat in the standings and are perhaps the deepest club in the NBA.
"What I said was looking back at the past two years matching up against teams, we had a tougher time against the Heat," Sixes second-year swingman Evan Turner said. "That's all I said. If I had to choose, we match up better against the Bulls."
That might be true but it's probably the difference between death by hanging or firing squad.
Philadelphia will open the East quarters against the Bulls in the Second City on Saturday, just two days after sitting its top five scorers in a season- ending loss at Detroit, a setback that guaranteed the team would avoid LeBron and Company.
The Bulls had the best record in the East for the second consecutive season and edged the San Antonio Spurs for the top spot in the NBA. The Sixers, however, were 1-2 against Chicago and 0-4 versus Miami.
Turner, a Chicago native, offered Philadelphia's perspective in The Delaware County Daily Times saying, "It means we're dodging the tougher team. That's what I think. I think we'll be able to compete well against Chicago, and have an opportunity to win the series."
That's probably a stretch as this set shapes up as one of the biggest mismatches in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
The Sixers plummeted down to earth after a hot start. They opened the truncated campaign with a sizzling 20-9 mark and led the Atlantic Division for quite some time. However, an 11-21 mark the next 32 games dropped the Sixers all the way down the East standings and had many wondering if this team would punch a ticket to the postseason.
A 4-1 season-ending road trip got Philadelphia in but it remains a team in disarray, one that may have already tuned out it's old school coach, Doug Collins.
The Bulls, meanwhile, dominated the East again in Tom Thibodeau's second year at the helm. The defensive-minded Thibodeau set the record for most wins by a first year coach in Chicago with 62 before following that up with an NBA-best 50-16 mark this season.
The Bulls captured bragging rights in the East for the second straight campaign, the first time the franchise has shown such dominance since 1997-98 season, when a Michael Jordan-led group won their third straight and sixth NBA title in eight years.
This version of the Bulls has its MVP-type player in point guard Derrick Rose although the Memphis product went through an injury-plagued season.
"I wouldn't be in a rush to play the Bulls," TNT analyst Kenny Smith said. "Defensively, the Chicago Bulls are going to make you uncomfortable regardless if he [Derrick Rose] is playing or not."
These two rivals have met in the East semifinals twice in back-to-back years (1989-90 and '90-91) during the Jordan-era with Chicago taking both sets 4-1.
POINT GUARD: The dynamic Rose played in just 39 games after his brilliant 2010-11 MVP season due to a host of nagging injuries. Perhaps the quickest player in the game when he's right, Rose is virtually unstoppable when the jumper is falling. His blazing first step normally enables him to drive at will where his soft floater becomes an incredible offensive weapon. However, Rose hasn't had the same explosion this season.
The Sixers thought Jrue Holiday was a future star but the UCLA product took a major step back this season. He started slow off the lockout and really never found his game. When right, Holiday is one the top 10 defensive point guards in the league but struggles with quickness and that defines Rose, at least when the reigning MVP is healthy. Without a real top-tier scorer, the Sixers would like Holiday to impose himself more on the offensive end but he's far too inconsistent from night to night.
SHOOTING GUARD: Veteran Rip Hamilton played in just 28 games this season but should be ready to go. Still, one of the best in the NBA at coming off screens and moving without the ball, Hamilton is nowhere near the player he was in Detroit but is a nice compliment on this talented club.
"I like Rip Hamilton because he does it [plays hard] at both ends of the floor," former NBA star Reggie Miller, a Hamilton Doppelganger when playing, said.
Jodie Meeks is a Collins favorite, often described as a glue-guy that helps the offensively-challenged Sixers space the floor with his jump-shooting ability. Problem is when the three isn't falling, Meeks is a major liability since he's a very poor defender.
CENTER: Noah never developed into an All-Star level player or the type of all- world defender his potential said he could become. That said, he remains a tough matchup thanks to his length, energy and athleticism. The skills on the offensive end remain poor and Noah spends most of his time as a garbage man picking up scraps with his hustle and work ethic.
Philadelphia's Spencer Hawes looked like one of the most improved players in the NBA during Philadelphia's hot start but back and Achilles' problems stopped him in his tracks, so much so that Collins benched him for rookie Nic Vucevic late in season. Vucevic, who doesn't have functional NBA strength, never seized the job, however, and Hawes will likely get another chance in the postseason. The Sixers need him and they are at their best when Hawes, a wide body with a high basketball IQ, nice shooting touch and the ability to pass from the pivot, is playing well.
SMALL FORWARD: A pair of All-Stars match up here but Chicago's Luol Deng has a more well-rounded game than the Sixers' Andre Iguodala. Both are very good defenders but Deng is the smarter player with a mid-range jumper tailor-made for Rose's playmaking ability.
Iguodala remains Philadelphia's best all-around player, and is one of the best two or three perimeter defenders in the NBA. More than a few stars have had bad nights on "Iggy Island" but his offensive game and free throw shooting, never the strength of his game, have regressed mightily this season. That said, Iguodala can stuff the stat sheet like few others but Collins would like him to stop relying so much on the jumper and become more of a slasher who can get to the free throw line when things are bogging down.
POWER FORWARD: Carlos Boozer is no longer an All-Star level player at this stage but he still has solid movement skills, can finish around the basket and run the floor.
Before a devastating Achilles injury Elton Brand was a horse on both ends of the floor. These days Brand still has a sweet mid-range stroke and is an underrated defender thanks to his smarts and an innate shot-blocking ability but the lift and explosion just aren't there.
BENCH: Thibodeau and Collins each have one of the best benches in basketball but Thibs' group is more well-rounded.
Kyle Korver, a former Sixer, remains one of the top three-point threats in the game but is a one dimensional player, while Taj Gibson is a very good low-post defensive player. Turkish center Omer Asik is a monster when setting screens and a more than capable defender while C.J. Watson has developed into one of the best backup point guards in the game.
"If the Bulls are going to dethrone the Miami Heat for the Eastern Conference crown the bench is going to have to play a pivotal role because they are so deep," Miller said. "They're (the bench) going to have to come up big at playoff time."
The Sixers have two Sixth Man of the Year candidates in guard Lou Williams, an extremely talented offensive player that provides instant offense off the bench and was Philadelphia's leading scorer, as well as forward Thaddeus Young, a whirling dervish on the blocks that confounds opponents with a wide array of low-post moves.
Collins also has Turner, a talented player that isn't one of his favorites but no big bodies. Vucevic, has potential and great court savvy for a young player but he's just not ready. Fellow rookie Lavoy Allen, a decent rebounder, may also get some minutes.
COACHING: Thibodeau wasn't a sexy pick when the Bulls tabbed him but he has been a perfect fit for a team with dogged defenders like Deng, Gibson and Asik. His defensive schemes make it very difficult to get easy baskets and things get even tougher in the postseason when things turn into a half-court game.
Collins is so passionate, so driven and so all-consuming that eventually it was going to wear on his players -- it always does. A quick check of the resume would have revealed some troubling patterns, however. There's no question that Collins is a good, perhaps very good NBA coach, but his previous three stops, including one in Chicago, featured quick spikes and a leveling off period before his players finally tuned out. To be blunt, shelf life is always a concern with Collins and the Sixers are quickly finding that out.
"I think Philadelphia played above their head," Former Sixer and current NBA TV analyst Chris Webber said. "I think their team is better than their individual talented coach Doug Collins has done a great job. I think they are scrappy and they play hard. They've earned some tough wins this year and I like what they've done."
PREDICTION: The Sixers struggle to score against pedestrian defensive teams, especially in half-court sets and their leading scorer (Williams) averaged just 14.9 ppg.
It's hard to imagine the light going off for players like Holiday or Turner this late in the season so you can expect Philadelphia to struggle to score 80 on any given night against a Thibodeau-led bunch.
"The Bulls are the only team, with the exception of the San Antonio Spurs at times, [whose defense] makes you change your offensive sets," Smith said. "You come in with your offensive sets and as the series goes on, you have to make up new sets for their defense."
Chicago, whether Turner knows it or not, has bigger fish to fry.
"If the Chicago Bulls are healthy, they are going to beat the 76ers," Former Sixer Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said. "They just have a better team. Even if they don't have Derrick Rose [in the lineup], they'll still beat the Sixers."
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: BULLS in 5