CHICAGO - Here in the Windy City, much is being made of comments Sixers forward Evan Turner made recently to the Delaware County Daily Times. When asked what it would mean to play the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs instead of the Miami Heat, Turner said, "That means we're dodging the tougher team."
Turner insists he wasn't trying to stir up his hometown or the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference. He was just stating the obvious. The Sixers don't match up well physically with the Heat. And they did the playoff thing with Miami last season, losing in five. Playing the Bulls means a new adventure, a different challenge, a sense of hope. Another series against Miami would have provided none of that.
Beginning Saturday at 1 p.m., the Sixers will start to find out just how much different this matchup will be. So here's a look at some of the keys to the best-of-seven series:
The biggest key for the Sixers is to contain the penetration of Derrick Rose. Last year's MVP has that rare blend of tremendous quickness and great speed. He can beat defenders with power dribbling (speed) or can jab one way with the ball and go the other a half a step sooner than the defender (quickness).
Rose missed 27 games this season with myriad injuries (concussion, groin, ankle). Coach Tom Thibodeau says his point guard is back and fully explosive. But in the five games he has played since returning from the latest injury (ankle), he has made only 26 of his 81 shots (32 percent) and turned the ball over 20 times. That could be rust from his lack of playing time, or perhaps the ankle isn't allowing him to get to the spots he's so accustomed to getting to. If he's not 100 percent, that's big for the Sixers, because when he is, the other keys to this series revolve around his penetration. Such as . . .
Rebounding. Doug Collins has drilled into his team the importance of rebounding in this series, and the players are repeating it like well-programmed robots. Chicago outrebounds opponents by an average of almost seven a game, tops in the NBA. They are especially good on the offensive end, and that's mostly due to Rose. When he penetrates into the lane, the big men inside naturally rotate toward him, so if Rose's field goal attempt misses, the likes of Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson and Ronnie Brewer are there to clean up. Also benefiting from Rose's drives into the lane are . . .
The three-point shooters. Rose is not only fleet of foot, but he is very strong in his upper body. When he does take the ball to the hole, many times he gets caught in the air with seemingly nowhere to go. But he is terrific at finding three-point shooters spotted up around the perimeter. Making an on-the-mark pass that has some distance while in the air isn't easy. But Rose makes it look easy. As crazy as it sounds, when he penetrates the lane and leaves his feet, Sixers defenders must move toward their men, taking away that pass, especially from the likes of Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson, Luol Deng and Rip Hamilton.
Decent outside shooting from the Sixers' centers. Spreading the Bulls out on defense is a key, as it not only would open lanes for the Sixers, but it will also make it harder for the Bulls to dominate the boards. This will happen if Spencer Hawes, Lavoy Allen, Elton Brand and Thaddeus Young can hit their open shots consistently. As we all know, the Sixers won't win any muscle contests in the lane with their assortment of centers. Outside shots must fall.
Continued offense from Andre Iguodala. How many eyes rolled after reading that? But in the last five games he played before being shut down for rest the final two, Iguodala shot 52.4 percent from the floor (33-for-63), including 14-for-30 (46.7 percent) from three-point range to help him average 17.4 points during that time. He also grabbed 8.0 rebounds and 5.6 assists. His foul shooting during that five-game stretch, however, continued to be abysmal, as he made only seven of 16 (43.8 percent).
Iguodala has seemed faster and more explosive lately than at any time during the season. When he is that, and not the player settling for long, pull-up jumpers or trying to dribble through traffic, he is a big addition to the offense. Anytime you can have a player putting up the numbers he has recently is beneficial. If his shots aren't falling in this series, Iguodala will have to realize it quickly and concentrate on other areas.
Bench depth must match that of Chicago's. The Bulls are among the deepest teams in the league, if not the deepest. The Sixers' main strength all season has been bench play. That must continue. Last season, after Thaddeus Young burned the Heat for 20 points in Game 1, Miami's defensive goal was to shut him down, and it did it well. The Sixers can't let the Bulls shut down anyone off the bench, whether it be Young or Lou Williams or Evan Turner.
Turner must be relevant. Perhaps his comments will fire up the Bulls a bit. Add to it that he and Rose were rivals when they played high school ball. When they squared off in a game in 2007, both players directed some bitter words during and after the game at each other. Rose seems to be able to keep his emotions under control and let his game do the talking. Turner is a talker and often will engage with taunting fans. He'll get plenty of that in this series, but Collins would certainly prefer to see his guard's play do the talking for him.