Analysis: Just three months ago, the Chicago front office appeared to throw in the towel on the season, trading the versatile Luol Deng to Cleveland for a slew of low-end draft picks, Andrew Bynum (who was promptly waived) and cap space. In theory, this wasn't the worst of decisions. At the time of Deng's departure, the Bulls were just 14-18. Worse, franchise star Derrick Rose succumbed to another catastrophic knee injury, one that would sideline him for the rest of the 2013-14 campaign. With a loaded upcoming draft, building for the future – and, for parsimonious owner Jerry Reinsdorf, avoiding the luxury tax - seemed like the right play.
Unfortunately for Reinsdorf, Tom Thibodeau's crew had a different itinerary. Since the Deng trade, the Bulls own a 34-16 record, finishing 4th in the Eastern Conference. Joakim Noah has elevated his game to an All-NBA level, averaging 12.6 points, 11.3 boards and 5.4 assists per contest. D.J. Augustin, picked off the NBA scrapheap following the loss of Rose, has become one of the league's best reclamation stories, leading the Bulls in scoring since the Deng trade. Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler are two of the better defenders in the Association and, despite their rising ages, Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer continue to be offensive threats.
Though they lack the star power of other conference contenders, the Bulls are the opponent no one wants to meet this spring.
Miami is heavily favored to return to the Finals, but New York and Indiana are both capable of hanging with James and co. in a seven-game series.
Analysis: Miami's attitude toward this past regular season could best be described as "an inconvenience." This was especially true of the team's play since the end of February, as the club is just 13-14 in its last 27 games. The end result is a .659 winning percentage, the Heat's lowest mark in the past four years.
Part of this has to do with the absence of Dwyane Wade, whose quickly-deteriorating body limited him to just 54 games this winter. Chris Bosh didn't pick up the slack in Wade's absence, averaging just 16.2 points (his lowest output since his rookie season) and 6.6 rebounds (lowest in his career), and Miami's bench failed to provide much firepower throughout the year.
Luckily for Miami, the team still employs the services of one LeBron James, who finished behind Kevin Durant as the most efficient player in the league this year. Admittedly not fully engaged throughout the season, look for James to punch it into overdrive in the upcoming weeks. Helping James will be one of the best clutch shooters in league history in Ray Allen, and even a Wade operating at 80 percent will put adversaries on notice. With a sound defense (97.4 points allowed per game, fourth-best) and one of the game's greatest in their corner, the only thing getting in way of another Finals appearance will be the Heat themselves.
Chances of Winning Conference Finals: Bulls 7.3% - Heat 75.3%
Average Score: Bulls 94.0 - Heat 101.6
Series MVP: LeBron James - 23.6 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 7.0 APG
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