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How the Chicago Bulls match up with their 3 potential opponents in the 1st round of the playoffs

For the first time in five years, the Chicago Bulls are in the NBA playoffs. But the road out of the first round will provide a momentous challenge for a team that has struggled since the All-Star break.

The top of the Eastern Conference is packed tightly with three teams — the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks — jockeying for the second, third and fourth seeds behind the Miami Heat. As either the fifth or sixth seed, the Bulls know they’ll face one of those three teams in the opening round of the playoffs, which begins April 16.

All three potential opponents present an uphill climb for the Bulls, who fell to 1-10 against the trio after a 117-94 home loss to the Celtics on Wednesday night. Here’s how the Bulls match up with the three.

Boston Celtics

On the surface, the Bulls should favor this matchup — the Celtics are the only team of the three they beat this season, which has to count for something. The Bulls won 128-114 on the road on Nov. 1, then nearly pulled off a comeback for a second win in Boston on Jan. 15, overcoming a 10-point deficit only to fall short 114-112.

But things have changed drastically for the Celtics since the second meeting, mostly on the back of a massive transition by Jayson Tatum to accept the leadership role required to lift them to their potential. Conversely, the Bulls have suffered a series of blows to their roster. Lonzo Ball is out for the season while Alex Caruso (back) and Zach LaVine (left knee) are far from 100%.

The Celtics have the best record (16-4) since the All-Star break while facing the 10th-hardest schedule. They beat the Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz in that span, although they showed weaknesses in losses to the Heat and Toronto Raptors. The late-season surge has vaulted the Celtics from seventh in the East to second, a half-game ahead of the Bucks and 76ers.

The biggest problem the Celtics pose is their defense, which ranks first in the NBA. And the Bulls offense continues to stagnate — failing to crack 110 points in six of their last seven games.

Wednesday’s loss highlighted every weak point of the offense as the Bulls failed to reach 100 points. They went 7-for-23 from 3-point range and turned the ball over 17 times despite LaVine’s return to the starting lineup. If that game was a playoff preview, the Bulls’ postseason tenure could be short-lived.

Philadelphia 76ers

The biggest threat from the 76ers is obvious — Joel Embiid. The Bulls don’t have a player with the size, strength and stamina to slow the 7-foot, 280-pound center. And their defensive rotations continue to lack the sharpness and communication to accommodate a full-game double team of the MVP candidate. In a playoff setting, the Bulls defense hasn’t showcased an ability to slow a big-man playmaker of Embiid’s caliber.

The 76ers beat the Bulls four times this season, and the last three were double-digit blowouts. The biggest gap for the Bulls comes when their secondary rotation shoulders a higher volume of minutes without stars DeMar DeRozan and LaVine on the court, allowing teams such as the 76ers to rack up quick runs.

The 76ers shot at least 40% from 3-point range in all four meetings, which could increase in the postseason against the Bulls’ perimeter defense, especially with Ball out and Caruso injured.

One small hope for the Bulls is the 76ers’ 22-17 home record, which is the worst of the trio. The Bulls have been at their best at the United Center, but they could use help on the road without home-court advantage in the series.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bulls took one final beatdown from the Bucks on Tuesday night at the United Center to cap a 4-0 season sweep.

Giannis Antetokounmpo poses the same type of threat as Embiid, but he’s often not even the top scorer for the Bucks in matchups against the Bulls. Brook Lopez muscled his way to 28 points from the paint Tuesday, and Jrue Holiday lit it up from 3-point range in their last meeting in Milwaukee. Despite the boos from fans, Grayson Allen seems to play his best basketball at the United Center.

Of equal concern is the way the Bulls offense always sputters against the Bucks. The Bulls averaged 101.5 points in their four meetings with a low of 90 in a dismal 36.5% shooting night Jan. 21. The Bulls aren’t a high-volume 3-point shooting team, but it was the only thing that kept them competitive in their March game in Milwaukee.

Tuesday night’s blowout at the United Center drove home the chasm between the teams, which could deepen in the playoffs.


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