Ranking Potential Play-in Tournament Matchups for the Chicago Bulls
Let’s make one thing clear: The Chicago Bulls can still screw this up.
In fact, after everything we’ve witnessed this season, the chance of them doing that feels a lot higher than it probably should. But, fine, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt! Let’s say the Bulls stay in the driver’s seat and avoid falling out of the top-10 in the Eastern Conference. In other words, let’s say the Bulls are able to crack the Play-In Tournament this season. Who are the other teams they might meet? And, more specifically, who are the teams the Bulls would prefer to see?
How Does the Play-In Work?
Before we answer those questions, let me preface by saying that Chicago is currently the 10th seed with a record of 34-38. They are only a half-game behind the Toronto Raptors for 9th and only 1.5 games behind the Atlanta Hawks for 8th. Catching both is certainly still in the realm of possibility, but catching the Brooklyn Nets – who are 4.5 games ahead for 7th – is a bit more unrealistic.
I should also remind you about the Play-In Tournament format. The 7th seed will host the 8th seed in the first game. The winner of that matchup will secure the 7th seed, while the 8th seed will have to go face the winner of the game between the 9th and 10th seed. This gives either the 7th or 8th two chances to keep their spot, while it forces the 9th or 10th seed to win two games to steal a spot.
Who will end up with which seeds remains unclear, but what we are beginning to get is a much better idea of is which teams will compete into the second week of April. Again, while nothing is officially set in stone, the Nets, Raptors, and Hawks look prime to join the Bulls as the four Play-In teams.
1. Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets currently hold the highest Play-In seed at No. 7. However, with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving now long gone, the team’s stumble down the standings has been stark. They are just 2-6 over their last eight games and have held just the 24th-ranked net rating since the All-Star break (15 games).
Fortunately for them, Durant and Co. did enough earlier this year to have them still working with a 3.0 game cushion for the No. 7 seed. Basketball-Reference’s Playoff Probabilities Report gives them a 46.4 percent chance at finishing in No. 7.
Regardless, whether it’s in the first or second round of the Play-In, there is no team I’d want the Bulls to battle more than the Nets. While they’ve been able to hold up defensively thanks to names like Dorian Finney-Smith, Mikal Bridges, and Nic Claxton, their offense has been borderline horrendous.
They have the 4th-worst offensive rating in the NBA since Durant was traded in early February. Not only are the Nets averaging the fewest points in the paint per game, but they average the second-fewest fastbreak points and third-fewest second-chance points. Heck, even Brooklyn’s success rate behind the arc hasn’t been anything to celebrate, as they have ranked just 19th with a 35.3 percent clip. Overall, the lack of any offensive identity makes this group arguably one of the best matchups for really any Play-In or playoff team.
Didn’t this star-less group beat the Bulls once already? Yes, but the moment Chicago saw the Nets again, they pantsed them in front of their crush on national television (aka embarrassed the heck out of them). The Bulls won 131-87 as we watched Brooklyn’s offense shoot just 37.0 percent from the field.
Look, I’m not saying a matchup with the Nets is a guaranteed win for the Bulls in the Play-In Tourney. The defensive talent on this team, especially at the wing, could cause this group some serious problems. Not to mention, with Bridges, Spencer Dinwiddie, Patty Mills, Royce O’Neal, Seth Curry, and Cam Johnson in the rotation, it’s not like this team doesn’t have experience. But I still think the Nets are one of the more vulnerable groups in the East, and they might as well be better off securing those lottery odds than making it through the Play-In.
2. Atlanta Hawks
I think there is a considerable gap between the fear the Nets and Hawks should instill in the Bulls. While Atlanta has been all kinds of dysfunctional this season, no one can deny the talent they have in their backcourt. Trae Young remains one of the NBA’s best scorers and table-setters, while Dejounte Murray is a lockdown defender with a strong mid-range game (I wonder if he learned that from old friend DeMar DeRozan?).
We also can’t forget the rebounding prowess of Clint Capela, and the streaky shooting ability of guys like Saddiq Bey, AJ Griffin, and Bogdan Bogdanovic. The Hawks have the 10th-ranked offense in the NBA and a 1.92 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is good enough for 6th in the league. In other words, they tend to limit their mistakes and distribute the wealth on the offensive end. This could prove to be bad news for a Bulls team that tends to be at its best when it’s scoring points off turnovers. But, fear not, there are plenty of other ways to score on this Hawks’ team.
As explosive as they can be offensively, the Hawks can allow their opponent to look just as explosive. Atlanta gives up the third-most points in the paint per game, as well as the fourth-most fastbreak points a night. DeMar DeRozan scored at least 26 points in each of his three games against the Hawks, while Zach LaVine shot 50+ percent in two of his three meetings with Atlanta. Both helped the Bulls outscore the Hawks 42-24 in the fastbreak over their three regular season contests, so tapping into this ability to push the pace and score in transition would be pivotal in a Play-In matchup.
Among the possible matchups, I do think this one would prove to be one of the tightest. While both teams have plenty of talent on their respective rosters, they have each struggled to find consistent production. The Hawks and Bulls also happen to sit 29th and 30th, respectively, in 3-point attempts per game, as they both rely more on a downhill game with a sprinkling of mid-range efficiency. The way the Bulls’ defense has played in recent weeks (4th-best in the last 15 games) could give us a reason to believe they have the upper hand, but I’d certainly walk into this game expecting some drama.
3. Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors could 100 percent end the Bulls’ season early.
The Bulls would head to Toronto if the Play-In Tournament started today, where the Raptors happen to be 23-14. Even if the game was played in Chicago, however, I’d have some grave concerns about the Bulls walking away victorious. Toronto is one of the most well-coached, disciplined, and physical teams in the NBA. We’ve already watched the Bulls drop two of their three games to the Raptors this season in large part due to their inability to counteract their aggressive style of play.
Indeed, the Bulls shot 52.1 percent from the field in their last matchup compared to the Raptors’ 40.4 percent … and still lost. If that doesn’t tell you just how difficult it is for this group to handle the Raptors, I don’t know what will!
Offensive rebounds and forcing turnovers are the Raptors’ bread and butter. They have the 3rd-highest OREB% in the NBA and have their opponents turn the ball over an average of 16.9 times a night, which is second-best in the league. Between OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Gary Trent Jr., and Pascal Siakam, the amount of length and hustle they have at the wings is absurd. All four have the ability to jump passing lanes and disrupt the point of attack. Anunoby and Trent Jr., in particular, both have a STL% that ranks in the 93rd percentile or better, per Dunks & Threes.
On top of all of this, the team traded for one of the most underrated big men in the league at the NBA trade deadline. Jakob Poeltl is averaging 15.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game since joining the team. Opponents have scored -13.7 points per 100 possessions thus far when Poeltl is on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass, which ranks within the league’s 100th percentile. Out of any of the big men on these three potential Play-In foes, Poeltl could be the toughest matchup for Nikola Vucevic.
The good news for Chicago is that the Raptors’ offense is – as the kids say – “sus.” They shoot just 33.8 percent from behind the arc (3rd-worst in the league) and sit bottom-5 in AST%. While a guy like VanVleet can get hot and Siakam is always tough to defend, there just isn’t much rhyme or reason to this Toronto offense. Instead, beating them could simply come down to limiting their second-chance opportunities and trips to the free-throw line.