Watching the widespread panic settle over NBA analysts and Bulls fans because the Bulls have won two close games amuses me. The Chicago Bulls have not played their best basketball, even I am not denying that. However, so much of the angst over these two close wins comes from the fact that the Pacers look like the worst team in the playoffs on the surface.
However, that simply isn't the case.
The Pacers had a fundamental change mid season
The Pacers changed coaches mid season after the players tuned out Jim O'Brien and struggled with his three point shooting oriented offense. Since switching to Vogel, the Pacers have played considerably better. Here's a look at the bottom four seeds in each conference over their last 38 games, the span over which the Pacers played with their new head coach.
I use 38 games, because it's a number where a franchise changing moment happened for the Pacers. They switched coaches. This number isn't cherry picked to avoid their greatest losing streak or anything like that, but is based on the point where the Pacers became a new team.
If I wanted to cherry pick, I'd say they were 10-7 over their last 17
games then say they were on pace to win 48 games if you pro-rate that
Of course they aren't the only ones
The New Orleans Hornets (losing David West), Denver Nuggets (trading
Melo), New York Knicks (trading for Melo), and Portland Trailblazers
(bringing in Gerald Wallace) also had franchise changing moments over
this the closing stretch that drastically altered their play relative to
the beginning of the year while the other four teams simply played
better or worse for other internal reasons.
There are some other caveats with this list. Different teams had varying
levels of performance down the very end of the stretch due to locking
in their playoff position. However, this includes the Pacers who
dropped their final two games after clinching their playoff spot, but
having no ability to move up either.
Without trying to guess how many games teams were going all out, and how
many they were playing while looking ahead (or outright losing on
purpose like Memphis), this is the chart.
How do you feel about the Pacers when you reseed
The Pacers presently sit fifth out of the eight teams over that stretch. While thinking of these teams. Memphis is obviously most impressive of this group as they flat out threw their final two games. Had they attempted to win them, they would have likely won at least one of them possibly both and been on pace for a 58 win season over the final 38. Remember that when wanting to rip the Spurs.
Atlanta has been the least impressive, and before you dismiss this by saying "well they were locked into 5th for so long", remember 38 games ago they were in a near tie with Orlando and could have easily had home court against them had they finished the season well.
New Orleans has struggled quite a bit, largely because of the injury to David West, but they have to play the playoffs without him, so it's irrelevant to rating them as a playoff team.
In short, if you readjust your expectations of how tough these matchups are based on the play over the final 38 games, you'd expect the most likely chances for an upset would all come from the West where the 5,6, and 8 seeds are all playing better than their present record.
Just be fair in how you view these wins
Even reseeding the teams, the Bulls should beat the Pacers fairly easily right? They're still only on pace for 43 wins. I agree. The Bulls have not played well, and they should still beat the Pacers fairly easily. The Bulls problems right now are more about what the Bulls are doing than the Pacers are doing.
However, things aren't nearly as bad as people think. When looking at the Pacers overall record, people get the feeling they're a two tiers below everyone else in the playoffs while that simply isn't the case. 38 games is not a small sample size. It's nearly half a season. For nearly half a season, the Pacers have played at a level above three other playoff teams over that half a season.
If there is room to panic for anyone here, it would be Orlando who lost to the Hawks once already and barely beat them in game two. On top of that, the Hawks basically beat themselves with one of the stupidest coaching decisions in the world by benching Al Horford for the entire first half after he picked up two fouls in the first few minutes.
Horford has a foul rate that suggests if he played the entire 48 minutes, he'd be likely not to foul out even if he only had four fouls to use and picked up no more fouls in the rest of his play that night.
The Lakers have lost a game to the Hornets and while you could say they just didn't show up for that first game, they didn't exactly crush New Orleans the second time around either.
The Celtics came down to the final possession with New York having the ball and a chance to win in consecutive games. The Knicks failed to finish things off both times, but those games were a coin flip down the stretch, and Boston can't figure out a way to score on the Knicks defense. Seriosuly, think about that.
My point is not that the Bulls are kicking ass and taking names. They're not. They have a lot of things they can improve upon, and they will need to play better in order to win a title this season.
However, they aren't playing as bad as people think, because the Pacers are better than people think. I'm not impressed with either of the opponents they'd face up against in the second round either, as neither of them have been particularly impressive.
I think the Bulls ultimately fall in a six or seven game series to Miami in the ECF. I think right now, I'd probably pick Miami to win the title over the Lakers which is exactly what I predicted in preseason as well. Over that stretch, my confidence in the Bulls has grown tremendously.
I originally thought they'd likely lose in the second round of the playoffs in a hard fought series, but have a very legitimate chance to win in that second round. I now think they'll lose in the ECF in a hard fought series but with a very legitimate chance to win that series.