By the time the playoffs roll around, it's reasonable to think an NBA head coach would have a good handle on his team's starting lineup and playing rotation. There have been 82 games to figure things out.
But with so many players working their way back into the lineup, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau will have a couple of tough decisions to make when the Bulls take on the Brooklyn Nets.
ŸShould he start Nazr Mohammed at center and bring Joakim Noah's limited minutes off the bench?
ŸWho starts between Jimmy Butler, Marco Belinelli and Richard Hamilton? If it's Butler, how does he work Belinelli and Hamilton into the rotation?
Game 1 of the first round playoff series is Saturday at the Barclays Center (7 p.m., CSN/ESPN). The Bulls had no media availability Thursday and few answers were given after Wednesday's regular-season finale against Washington.
Noah played 14 minutes against the Wizards and contributed no points, 1 rebound and 1 assist. Maybe it's tough to judge his production with low minutes in his second game back from a long layoff to rest plantar fasciitis. After the game, Noah said he wanted to play more.
"Just trying to figure out what the best thing is, in terms of where his minutes are," Thibodeau said after Wednesday's game. "We may adjust it as we go. I still want to think it through. He didn't score, but I like the way he was moving out there."
At the same time, the Nets and high-scoring center Brook Lopez might be a decent matchup for Mohammed. This will be the ninth trip to the playoffs for Mohammed and he seemed up to the task Wednesday, scoring a season-high 17 points against the Wizards.
Mohammed had a key blocked shot against Lopez late in the Bulls' victory at Brooklyn on April 4.
"It's good to know he's there," Thibodeau said of Mohammed. "I think he's confident, I think his teammates are confident in him and I like his experience."
It's worth asking how far the Bulls can go in the playoffs without Noah being a significant contributor. In many ways, he epitomizes this hardworking squad. Butler talked about Noah's role on Wednesday.
"Super important, not only on the offensive and defense end, but just the leadership he brings," Butler said. "A lot of that comes from his energy. When a big play is going down, you can see him screaming, see him yelling. But more than anything, he knows so much on the floor on both ends. I feel like he like he can coach you up while you're out there on the floor. That's big and we definitely miss that."
At shooting guard, Butler would appear to be the best option. The Nets have length at small forward in Gerald Wallace, so Butler would be able to guard Joe Johnson and leave Luol Deng on Wallace.
Then again, Hamilton brings a ton of playoff experience and Belinelli was the high scorer in two games against the Nets this season. If Butler starts, do the Bulls risk getting little from the two shooting guards? Belinelli appears to still be struggling with an abdominal strain, while Hamilton says he's recovered from a bulging disc in his back.
"I told Thibs, I told the training staff when I came back, 'I'm ready to go.'" Hamilton said. "So whatever they want from me, I'm cool. I don't feel I'm limited. Whatever they want me to do, I'm going to do."
Butler has probably been the Bulls most reliable player this season, from playing in all 82 games, staying on the floor for 40-plus minutes and providing extreme hustle.
"I don't know. That's up to (Thibodeau)," Butler said when asked if he'll start in the playoffs. "I just know, starting or coming off the bench, I'm trying to bring the same aggressiveness on both ends of the floor. If that's 20 minutes or 48, I've got to bring it every night.
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