FanPost

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Preview: (4) Brooklyn Nets vs. (5) Chicago Bulls

What a difference a year (and a new home) makes. Around this time last year, while everyone else was gearing up for the playoffs, we here at NetsDaily had the pleasure of dissecting everything that went wrong during the 2011-2012 season. Of course, this season turned out much differently for New Jersey Brooklyn. They went from perennial loser to one win away from the magical 50 win mark on the season. Now, they find themselves on what they hope will be a long journey to the NBA Championship.

It's been a pretty eventful season for the Nets. After a rollicking start to the season which earned then coach Avery Johnson "Coach of the Month" honors and got Deron Williams a mention in Sekou Smith's early MVP rankings on NBA.com, all was going well for the Nets. But starting with their loss to Miami on December 1, everything went wrong for the Nets. They went 5-11 for the month, and their struggles eventually led to Avery Johnson getting kicked to the curb before the month ended. P.J. Carlesimo took over, and despite one of the uglier performances you'll ever see, the Nets went 12-2 in his first 14 games as interim head coach.

Typically, whenever there's a change at the coaching position, the team tends to alter their style of play. That was not and has not been the case with Carlesimo. When Avery Johnson was at the helm, the Nets played at one of the league's slowest paces and did not amass a lot of assists. With PJ? The Nets have been playing at one of the slowest paces in the league and have not amassed a lot of assists.

Standing in the way of the Nets are the Chicago Bulls. Even though they're the five seed, I think they've had a remarkable season. With Derrick Rose recovering from his knee injury, I figured the Bulls would struggle to even make the postseason. But Joakim Noah maintained his excellent play, Jimmy Butler grew into a solid player (and is still improving!), Nate Robinson did some good work, and Tom Thibodeau still had them playing ferocious defense.

Before we dig into all the essentials, I want to hit the wayback machine. Our first trip takes us back to May of 2007. It was the last time the Nets were in the playoffs and was the last time hey won a playoff game at home. It also doubles as one of the last great performances of Jason Kidd in a Nets uniform.

The second trip takes us all the way back to April 1998. The Bulls were on their way to their third consecutive Championship and sixth in eighth seasons. Along the way, they faced off against the Nets in the First Round. Sit back and watch Michael Jordan be his hyper-efficient self.

Game 1 is at 8:00 Saturday night. Let's dig in!

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How have these teams done in the 2012-2013 campaign? Let's take a look:

Metric

Brooklyn Nets

Chicago Bulls

League Average

Pace

88.8

89.3

92

Offensive Rating

108.2

103.5

105.8

Defensive Rating

103.6

103.2

105.8

Free Throw rate

29.9

25.9

20.4

Turnover rate

15.9

15.4

13.7

Offensive Rebounding percentage

30.9

29.4

26.5

Effective Field Goal percentage

49.8

47%

49.6%

Opponent Effective Field Goal percentage

50.3%

47.8%

49.6%

Record

49-33

45-37

N/A

One of the big critiques about the Nets offense this season has been the lack of movement and over-reliance on isolation plays. You could watch a couple of games or take a glance at the team assist rate and come to the conclusion that the offense is pretty stagnant. In fact, Deron Williams made a similar critique back in December when he said:

"Is it as good as there? No," he said. "There’s just more one-on-one and isos" in Johnson’s offense.

Despite the lack of movement, the Nets still found themselves living at the free throw line. Brooklyn was sixth in free throw rate, and a lot of that can attributed to the work of Brook Lopez & Williams, as they were both in the Top 20 in free throws made and attempted this year. More on them in a bit.

The main lineup utilized by the Nets this year has been the Williams-Johnson-Wallace-Evans-Lopez group. The popular belief is that this group struggles together when they're on the court. And as it turns out, they're one of the weaker combinations the Nets have deployed. In 639 minutes together, this group is only 5 points better per 100 possessions than their opponent.

Looking at Chicago, their size really plays a part in how their offense operates. For the third consecutive season, they've finished Top 5 in Offensive Rebounding rate. A lot of that was due to the great work of Noah and Taj Gibson.

Now, the individual matchups!

Point Guard: Deron Williams vs. Kirk Hinrich

"He's playing at absolutely one of, if not the, elite point guards in the league in terms of the things he brings to the table."

-PJ Carlesimo

I was beginning to forget how good Williams was. Since he had joined the Nets, Williams has dealt with a ton of injuries, lousy teammates, being miscast as a high-usage scorer, genuinely poor play and having shade thrown on him by Jerry Colangelo.

One of the keys to Williams' rejuvenation this season has been his success at the basket. In 2011-2012, Williams banked on only 52.7 percent of his attempts inside of five feet. This year, he's been shooting a career best 62.5 percent very close to the rim. He's always been a good finisher at the basket, and this refound success has led to him regaining his success from the midrange and beyond. Deron has been one of the most successful point guards in the league from 15-19 feet, but his wrist injuries the past couple of seasons have neutralized that strength. Now that he's healthy, he's back to shooting in the 40's from midrange.

With the return of Lopez and the arrival of Joe Johnson, Deron has taken on less of the offensive responsibility. His 24.4 usage rate is right in line with his career marks, and it's allowed for him to focus more on getting better shot opportunities for himself and his teammates.

On the other side is Kirk Hinrich. Even though he's been injured a ton, (no seriously, just look at the amount of injuries he's suffered this year alone), he's done a solid job conducting the Chicago offense. Their offensive efficiency has mostly stayed the same with him on the court and he's been able to limit his turnovers. THe Bulls were six points better with Hinrich on the court against the Nets and shot 10 percentage points better from the floor with him in the game. D-Will shot only 41 percent from the field against the Bullls defense,

Advantage: Nets

Shooting Guard: Joe Johnson vs. Jimmy Butler

I didn't want Joe Johnson when the Nets made their play for him in the summer. I didn't want Joe Johnson on the Nets as he struggled through the early portion of the season. And after three game-winners and other assorted late game heroics, I still don't want Joe Johnson on the Nets. It's been a decidedly subpar year for the multiple time All Star, with one notable exception.

I'm expecting Johnson's past playoff failures with the Hawks to be mentioned by the broadcasters and analysts in this series. To refresh your memory, after the Hawks pulled one of their "Get down and stay down" routines, Johnson had this to say about the fans who booed the team's play:

"They don’t bother me. It’s about us in this locker room. We could care less if they showed up or not."

Hopefully for the Nets' sake, Johnson does much better than his career 49.5 True Shooting Percentage this time around.

One of the "luxuries" of having a superstar out for an extended period of time is that it allows younger players to take his place and make a name for themselves. For Chicago, Butler has fit that role to a tee. The second year player has seen his minutes triple this year, and he's provided great results. His shooting percentage shot up six points, he's beginning to develop a three point shot, and did this to Chris Bosh. When Rose comes back, the lineup of Rose-Butler-Deng(provided he's not traded)-Gibson-Noah should have the Bulls back at the top of the East.

I think the biggest part of Butler's game is his defense. He's long, quick, and athletic enough to hang with Deron Williams, and he's strong enough to handle Joe Johnson should the Nets run plays for him in the post.

I'll end this section by quoting Thibs:

The way he scores, he runs the floor, he moves without the ball, he's great to the offensive board, he has worked extremely hard on his three-point shot. He's a very good corner three-point shooter right now and we felt good about that from the start. He's always been an excellent free throw shooter so we thought that showed us that he would have the ability to improve his shooting and he's done that. He can play off of people, he's great feeding the post, he does a lot of things that help your team win."

Advantage: Nets (slightly)

Small Forward: Gerald Wallace vs. Luol Deng

Unfortunately for the Nets, Wallace has become incredibly easy to defend. He was never known as a particularly great shooter, but this year has been a catastrophe. This has been his worst year shooting the ball since he became a regular player in 2004. His True Shooting percentage of 49 percent is ghastly, and that's thanks in large part to his shooting 27 percent on his jumpers. Add to that he's shooting only 63 percent on his free throws with a lack of rebounding and passable defense and what we end up with is a below average player that doesn't provide much value for his 30 minutes per contest. And it's only Year One!

I'm still kinda pissed off that Deng decided wrist surgery, but it's whatever at this point. Deng has still proven himself to be a capable player despite all of the injuries. He'll have a few turns defending Joe Johnson this series, and should provide enough physicality to throw off Johnson.

Advantage: Chicago

Power Forward: Reggie Evans vs. Carlos Boozer

For a bit player, Evans gets a ton of hate from Nets fans. All you have to do is mention Evans once in a post and all types of shade gets thrown at him. Sure he's a complete non-factor on offense (even moreso than Wallace), can't defend the pick-n-roll, and talks too much (but it did produce this bit of LeBron hilarity), but he's only on the court for 24 minutes a night (I thought he played much more). But he has been the best rebounder in the league this year, and with the size of the Bulls frontcourt, barring any foul trouble, I think he'll see an increase in his minutes for this series.

I remember around the trading deadline, a lot of folks on the site wanted the Nets to make a play for Carlos Boozer. People like myself didn't want him because, in addition to his salary, he kinda sucks now (and Bulls fans hate him). But compared to Evans, Boozer looks like a superstar. For a big guy, his 38 percent is perfectly acceptable from the midrange. I don't expect his offensive role to change, but I think he'd do well to spent more time in the paint this series. He's shooting a robust 64 percent inside the restricted area, and with the lack of depth outside of Lopez & Blatche, Boozer should dominate. And if you're expecting anything from him on defense, you're looking for the wrong man.

Advantage: Chicago

Center: Brook Lopez vs. Joakim Noah(?)

For a while, and perhaps it's still the case, there was this notion that the Nets are better off with Lopez & should hang up if the Lakers were to offer them Dwight Howard. And to his credit, Lopez made that notion sound not so crazy. Sure he's not a great rebounder or team defender at this point, but his offensive game is top-notch. He was tenth in the league in usage rate, and still managed to shoot a very efficient 56.7 True Shooting percentage. The big change this year was the location of his FGAs. In his last full season, Lopez took more shots from the midrange than he did from the restricted area (a point I made sure to complain about). It's been the opposite this season as the majority of his shots came from the RA, and he cashed in on 66 percent of those attempts and found himself at the line five times a night along the way.

Against the Bulls, he shot a pretty good 52 percent, but it didn't go so well the last time he saw Chicago. He scored 28 points on 10-19, but in the last two minutes of the game, Nasty Naz(r Mohammed) locked him down with some physical defense, and he missed an open jumper that would've sent the game into overtime. Unfortunately for him (and for me, because I hate it with a passion), there was chatter at the site about whether he's "mentally tough enough" to succeed in the playoffs. With Noah severely hampered in this series, it's a must that the Nets feed Lopez in the post early and often.

It's really a shame that Noah is dealing with an injury this late in the season. With Rose out, Noah raised his game to an All Star level. He maintained his level of efficiency even without the presence of Rose, provided great defense in the frontcourt and continued his great passing. He's doubtful for Game One, and who knows if he's gonna be able to make a difference. If Noah's unable to go, look for Nazr Mohammed to get the start. Mohammed threw Lopez off his game in the final minutes of their last meeting, but I'm not expecting him to maintain that level of success for seven games.

Advantage: Nets

Benches:

Brooklyn - Andray Blatche, C.J. Watson, Keith Bogans, Kris Humphries

Blatche should get a ton of minutes in this series. In the early part of the season, Blatche was Top Ten in PER. He ended up 14th, but for a dude who was out of shape and useless for so long with the Washington Wizards, his turnaround has been remarkable. Much like Lopez, Blatche has been outstanding inside, shooting a superb 65.6 percent in the restricted area. The big complaint (of many) about Carlesimo's coaching has been the lack of time Lopez & Blatche have spent together. In fact, they've only been on the court together for 19 minutes this season. I wouldn' expect that to change this late in the season.

Rounding out the bench are Watson, Bogans, and Humphries. Up until the last two games of the season, Humphries had been something of a forgotten man in the rotation. Assuming Batche stays out of foul trouble, Humphries won't see much of any PT this round.

Chicago - Nate Robinson, Taj Gibson, Marco Bellinelli, Nazr Mohammed

I have to admit, I'm a fan of Nate. Sure he's a fool and will drive you crazy with some of his foolishness, but when he gets going, he can be unstoppable. He never lacks for confidence and shot a highly respectable 54 True Shooting percentage in his 25 minutes of game action a night. Much like the rest of the Bulls, Gibson has been dealing with injuries, but he has been improving and might have his minutes limit lifted. Initially, I felt the Bulls wouldn't have lost that much with the departure and Belinelli coming in to take his place. I was wrong.

Prediction: Nets in 7

The third quarter figures to be huge in this series. The Bulls have been just about even coming out of halftime, but the Nets are six points worse than their foes coming out of the break.

If Noah was at 100 percent, I would have taken Chicago. But since he isn't and Derrick Rose out until next year, it doesn't look that great for Chicago. They'll still be able to control the glass, but without Noah to disrupt him, I think Brook Lopez will dominate the Bulls offensively.

Required reading: Blog a Bull

The mothership: Bulls vs Nets coverage

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