Previewing potential Bulls-76ers first-round playoff matchup

Zach LaVine, James Harden, Chicago Bulls (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Zach LaVine, James Harden, Chicago Bulls (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia 76ers are currently the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and are just a half-game behind the Milwaukee Bucks for third.

As of now the Chicago Bulls are the sixth seed, but with a strong end to the season, or a Toronto Raptors’ collapse, they could end up at fifth (though unlikely). If that happens (or if the Sixers make up that half-game on Milwaukee), Chicago will be stuck trying to derail the process.

While the Sixers aren’t a cakewalk, this potential matchup isn’t the worst-case scenario for the Bulls. Philadelphia has been the better team most of the regular season. Joel Embiid, who might finish as the MVP, and James Harden are much better than DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine.

Yet, both Philly players’ postseason histories don’t say instant death like one would think.

Embiid has done things on court that haven’t been seen since Shaquille O’Neal’s MVP season. But when the playoffs roll around, he hasn’t been able to will his team to key wins. Last year, we saw the Sixers have numerous chances to finish off the Atlanta Hawks. Each of those chances were fumbled. Instead of ending the Hawks down low, Embiid would float around the perimeter and force up fadeaway jump shots in crunch time.

How would the Bulls match up with the 76ers in the NBA playoffs?

He did the same thing in the Sixers’ gentlemen sweep against the Celtics in 2018. The Celtics were without their then-stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. The team’s best match for Embiid was Al Hordford, who Embiid should’ve been able to dominate. Instead, he faded in crunch time of each game and allowed Horford to dictate the Celtics’ offense.

The next year he was even worse. In the Eastern Conference Finals, he had five games where he scored fewer than 20 points and three games were he shot under 30% from the field. The Sixers lost the series to the Toronto Raptors after a lucky shot from Kawhi Leonard in Game 7. It’s safe to say that if Embiid was the dominant version of himself that fans are used to seeing in the regular season, the Sixers would have pulled that series out.

Maybe it’s fatigue. It could bad luck. Whatever it is, his playoff history is summarized by “coming up short.”

Harden’s playoff reputation is a little more polarizing. He has shown throughout his career that he can single-handedly beat a team in the playoffs. He did in 2015 against the Los Angeles Clippers after being down 3-1 and then again in 2020 against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

He’d had plenty of special performances that have forced analysts to compare him to Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan as scorers. He has shot down teams led by future and current Hall of Famers, like Chris Paul and Tim Duncan. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer with performances to match. That much is indisputable.

But he also has signature stinkers that forced him out of conversations that include Bryant and Jordan.

Throughout his career, as the postseason progresses, his output regresses. The more he plays, the more passive he gets. In the Brooklyn Nets’ second-round series against the Bucks last year, Harden wasn’t able to score consistently. The Bucks’ length disrupted Harden’s drives and ability to create separation.

He then tried to defer to Durant, an option that wouldn’t turn any heads if it wasn’t Harden. But since it’s Harden, deferring doesn’t help a team’s offense. When he defers, he typically lacks off-ball movement. He doesn’t cut, set a screen, or even interchange with someone. Instead he stands still, allowing the defense to do the same.

When he doesn’t defer, he dribbles out the shot clock and either goes up for a tough shot or kicks it out to a teammate with little time left to put up an attempt. This leads to rushed or heavily contested shots.

This season, Harden has had problems creating separation and getting to the free throw line consistently. In games where he gets to the line fewer than 10 times, he’s averaging 15 fewer points. In those games, he’s also having the worst shooting percentage of his career because of the lack of ticky-tack foul calls he’s used to getting.

Harden’s wizardry is undeniable but very nuanced. The combination of both stars’ histories make them an interesting duo in the playoffs because an opposing team doesn’t really know which version of the stars they’re getting. History says that they’re manageable.

Overall, Chicago doesn’t match up well with the Sixers on paper, but Philly’s mental lapses could give the Bulls an upset similar to what the Hawks pulled off last season. The key will be staying in front of Harden without using their hands, forcing him to score without free throws, and forcing Embiid to the perimeter.

If the Bulls are able to do this, they will have a great shot at pulling off the upset, even without a key player like Lonzo Ball in the fold.

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