Bulls on the rise, but are they ready?

Just when it seemed the Los Angeles Lakers were sleepwalking, Kobe Bryant stepped up and fired a homophobic slur at an official to remind everyone the NBA playoffs are back.

It’s time for conspiracy theories, laughably poor officiating favoring marquee teams and star players, and the same look-at-me star players shouting insults at officials when they don’t get every call.

But there are positives, too, and one is Derrick Rose, a humble superstar who has turned the Chicago Bulls into a hotter team than the Miami Heat.

When the season started about six months ago, the Heat and Boston Celtics looked to be on an Eastern Conference collision course. Then the Heat nearly imploded, the Celtics unloaded Kendrick Perkins and the script changed at the top.

“In the East, I think it’s an absolute two-team race between the Heat and Bulls,” said Mike Colbert, M Resort sports book director for Cantor Gaming. “The Bulls are a really good young team, but I think they’re a year away.”

Is Chicago, 62-20 and the East’s top seed, a year away or is this the year Rose and the Bulls make a run to the NBA Finals? That’s a tough one to answer.

Yet what’s obvious is the Bulls have traded places with the Celtics. Tom Thibodeau, Chicago’s first-year coach, was the brain behind Boston’s defense in recent years. Rose, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah are on the rise while the Celtics’ stars are breaking down.

Before the Feb. 24 trade of Perkins, a rugged low-post defender and rebounder, Boston was 41-14. After that dubious deal, the Celtics went 15-12.

“Boston has just faded, and trading Perkins I think is going to go down in history as one of the worst in-season trades of all time,” said handicapper Jim Kruger of VegasSportsAuthority.com, emphasizing the loss of Perkins weakened the Celtics defensively and psychologically. “If Boston makes it out of the East, I will be shocked.”

Don’t look for many upsets in the best-of-7 first-round series opening this weekend, but the Celtics, minus-340 series favorites over the New York Knicks, should be on high alert.

“It wouldn’t surprise me a lot to see the Knicks win this series,” Sportsmemo.com handicapper Erin Rynning said.

The issue with the Knicks, built around Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, is they are all about offense but play little to no defense, and defense is what wins in the postseason.

“The Knicks traded away some very good parts of their team and they got some big-name players who are not going to be able to live up to their reputations. Anthony’s defensive liabilities just supercede his offensive abilities,” Kruger said. “I don’t think New York can take Boston out. The Knicks just do not have the defense.”

Regardless of the first-round outcome, Colbert sees the Celtics’ demise is near. “I legitimately give the Celtics zero chance to win the East,” he said. “I think the Knicks will beat Boston.”

If the Knicks don’t turn the trick, the only other shots for upsets are in the West, where Portland could upend Dallas (minus-200), Denver should test Oklahoma City (minus-240) and Memphis might put a scare into San Antonio (minus-400).

Injuries are adding intrigue for the Spurs, who might be without Manu Ginobili on Sunday, and the Lakers, who are concerned about Andrew Bynum’s bad knee.

“There’s no bigger Kobe Bryant fan than me,” Colbert said. “But I really like the Thunder to be the team to beat in the West.”

Rynning broke down the East this way: The Bulls have a 50 percent chance to win and the Heat have a 40 percent chance. “Everybody else has about a 10 percent chance combined,” he said.

The Bulls will meet the Lakers in the Finals, Rynning predicted, but I asked for second and third opinions.

Kruger: “Thibodeau made Boston with his ability to create a great defense, and he has brought that to Chicago, which ranks No. 1 in defensive efficiency. The inside play of the Bulls is really going to beat the crap out of the Heat. I just can’t go against Chicago.”

Colbert: “Obviously, Derrick Rose is an absolute freak, but I don’t think the Bulls are good enough to beat Miami.”

The Bulls won 41 games in each of Rose’s first two seasons, both of which ended in first-round knockouts. Rarely in the NBA does a team with no postseason series wins make a sudden Finals run. Are the Bulls an exception or are they a year away?

Look for a Bulls-Lakers showdown, and try not to listen when Bryant is shouting insults at officials.

Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts the “Las Vegas Sportsline” weeknights at midnight on KDWN-AM (720) and thelasvegassportsline.com.

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