For some, the mere notion the the Miami Heat have made it as far as the Eastern Conference Finals flies in the face of everything that should be good and decent about basketball.
They argue that it can’t be that easy. Further, they argue that it shouldn’t be that easy. To effortlessly place of two of the top five players in the world on the same team, add another perennial All-Star to the fold and then pad the roster with minimum contracts and desperate ringless veterans would seem to undermine the five-men-working-as-one principles that Dr. James Naismith envisioned.
On the other end of the hoops philosophy spectrum sit the Chicago Bulls, the cream of the Eastern Conference crop during the regular season. Like the Heat, they too loaded up in the summer of 2010. But instead of going the coercive, top-heavy route, the Bulls added a range of players to compliment an already talented, but limited team that made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, but failed to advance out of the first round.
It seems unjust that Heat’s boisterous crew of run-and-gun mercenaries would best the Bulls, a team built on discipline, depth, defense, and the desire of the league’s Most Valuable Player, Derrick Rose.
With that, court is in session.
The facts of the case
The Bulls topped the Heat in each of the teams’ three regular season meetings. LeBron James did not play and Chris Bosh missed the fourth quarter in a 99-96 Bulls win in Chicago. The most memorable aspects of the Bulls’ 93-89 victory at the United Center on Feb. 24 were Bosh’s ghastly 1-for-18 shooting performance and Luol Deng’s roof-collapsing 3 to seal the victory. In the lone Miami-set tilt on March 6, the Bulls prevailed with an 87-86 win despite putting forth a modest 45 percent shooting effort to Miami’s 48 percent. Both James and Dwyane Wade missed opportunities to win the game in the waning seconds, and following the game, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra saw fit to disclose to the media that several Heat players were moved to tears by the loss.
The Bulls faced the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs, besting the East’s eighth seed in five games, but doing so with very little flare before the series finale. After middling efforts led to a split of the first four games against their second round opponent, the Atlanta Hawks, the Bulls began to round into form with a dominant performance from Rose and his mates off the bench in Game 5 and an incredible resurgence from the struggling Carlos Boozer in Game 6 to put the series on ice.
For the Heat, a fairly effortless five-game victory over a plucky Philadelphia 76ers team opened their playoff campaign. The real fireworks, though were reserved for the second round. James exercised the demons of his playoff past, ousting the defending Conference Champion Boston Celtics, also in five games. Wade and James passed the alpha dog baton back and forth as the situation deemed fit, with James leading the charge in the decisive Game 5 with a 10-point surge to send the Celtics packing.
The case for the Heat
If ever a team embraced an “us against the world” mentality, it is this installment of the Miami Heat. The vast majority of the basketball-consuming public has voiced their general disapproval with the manner in which Miami has conducted itself ever since pilfering Wade, James, and Bosh last July. An elaborate, WWE-esque “welcome party” in which James projected at no fewer than seven titles before the team had even practiced together certainly didn’t help.
So it’s clear that, as a general guideline, people do not care for the Heat. It is even clearer, however, that the Heat are just fine with that. It’s hard to tell whether they knew going into the season that they would eventually play the role of villain, but they have gamely taken up the task. The team will of course go as far as Wade and James take them, and the duo seems hell-bent on silencing all their newly minted critics.
The fact of the matter is the Heat have the two best players in the series, which means they are not likely to be blown out of any game in this series. Both Wade and James have a long and storied track record of imposing their will on defenders for long stretches. Wade brought Miami a title in 2006, but since then, both he and James have repeatedly found themselves on teams with a low ceiling for postseason success. This is particularly true for James, who I’m certain would be more than willing to share with the Bulls the multitude of accolades and jewelry granted to the team with the league’s best regular season mark.
Anyhow, now they have each other. They have thus far done a remarkable job of deferring to one another depending on the moment and the circumstances. Bosh, often a scapegoat for the team’s regular season woes, has quietly surged in the playoffs cementing a critical Game 4 win against Boston with a late tip-in of a James miss. The Heat have even managed to get a random hot effort from the likes of James Jones and Mike Bibby.
The case for the Bulls
The Bulls march forth into this series carrying the league’s best defense, the reigning coach of the year and the MVP. Much like the Heat, the Bulls also appear to be peaking just in time for the Eastern Finals. It seemed abundantly clear to even the most casual of basketball fans that the Bulls were better than the Hawks, but they only began to flex their muscles in the series’ final two games. In Game 6, Rose recorded a playoff low in both points (19) and field goal attempts (14). Yet the end result was the Bulls most convincing victory, highlighted by innumerable high screen-and-rolls between Rose and a suddenly very healthy-looking Boozer, who sank 10 of 16 shot attempts for 23 points, by far his best performance of the playoffs.
At the risk of putting to fine a point on a single game, Thursday’s Game 6 victory represents everything that makes the Bulls dangerous. Early on, Rose deferred to his talented band of castmates as Boozer, Deng, and Joakim Noah all made their presences felt on the offensive end.
If its barrage of talented headliners wasn’t enough, Chicago also sports a formidable phalanx of reserves capable of holding and, in many cases, extending the starters’ leads. The rotation functions with Swiss watch-like precision. Barring foul trouble, Tom Thibodeau will pull all of his starters, save for Deng, after the first quarter. Enter the Bulls’ “bench mob,” led by C.J. Watson, Taj Gibson, Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer. From there Thibodeau carefully monitor’s the second unit’s progress, riding their momentum like a hot blackjack player before laying down the Rose/Boozer/Noah hammer once more.
When functioning at full strength there is very little Bulls do not do well.
I don’t need to be the 309,598,293rd writer to tell you that the regular season and the playoffs are two wholly separate entities and that you shouldn’t take much from the Bulls’ regular season sweep of the Heat. That said, I find it very difficult to rule in Miami’s favor in several key matchups in this series.
Even a team as defensively skilled as the Bulls will not stifle Wade and James. However, I expect Thibodeau will counter James with Deng, a lengthy athletic defender who has held his own with James in the past. As for Deng, I suppose my boldest prediction will be that he will actually struggle quite a bit against the Keith Bogans/Ronnie Brewer committee that will likely check him. Bogans can knock down an open 3 if the situation calls for it and Brewer has displayed moments of offensive competence, but make no mistake about it: Thibodeau will send both of them out on the floor with very simple marching orders: “Keep Wade in front of you and if he drives into the paint, make him think twice about doing it again.”
As for who Spoelstra will saddle with unenviable task of guarding Rose, your guess is as good as mine. I suppose his point guard counterpart, Mario Chalmers, is the likely choice, which the Bulls will warmly welcome.
For all their faults, the Heat’s key to victory is actually fairly simple. In each of their playoff losses (and even some of their less than impressive wins), one common denominator for the Bulls has been a slow start. It will be interesting to see if Spoelstra opts to overwhelm Rose by placing the 6’8″ James on him for the first period to stymie the Bulls’ momentum before it even gets started.
Another pivotal matchup to monitor will be Boozer vs. Bosh in the post. Boozer had been nagged with an injured toe for most of the Hawks series until his Game 6 blooming. Ostensibly, it seems like a wash, as both guys have 20-10 talent and lack any real semblance of a defensive thought. But what I’m curious to see is who responds to the pressure of the moment. Both Boozer and Bosh have developed a reputation for shrinking away from big games and opportunities, but have recently found their footing in the playoffs.
Bulls in five. And the jury didn’t have to deliberate for all the long either. It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion and flash of the Heat’s vanquishing of Boston, but a closer look at that series shows the Heat were flirting with disaster on more than one occasion. Leading 2-1, a disastrous James turnover late in a tied Game 3 gave Boston new life and a chance to draw even. A blown pick from Kevin Garnett then led to a contested Paul Pierce shot which went begging and the Heat cruised in overtime. In Game 5, the Heat had to rally from seven points down at home against a team with a one-armed point guard and a plethora of aging has-beens nursing injuries on the bench.
Furthermore, while the Heat have relied chiefly on explosive transition tactics, mostly because they have faced overmatched (in the 76ers’ case) or aging (in Boston’s) defenses without much chance to slow them down. That won’t be the case against Chicago, who also figure to dominate the boards thanks to Boozer, Gibson and Noah. Thibodeau’s defensive wizardry will force the Heat to run competent halfcourt sets, something I’ve yet to see the Heat do on a consistent basis.
Maybe I’m an idealist. Maybe I refuse to believe that the Heat can win against a quality opponent playing this way. I’ve tried my best to assess the data before me and I keep coming back to the fact that all year the Heat have struggled against teams with quality centers and point guards, two positions on which the Bulls have the market cornered. Throw in the Bulls aforementioned defensive tenacity and their vastly superior bench, and I see the Bulls fairly effortlessly taking the next step towards a new dynasty.
Court is adjourned. Tipoff is 8 p.m. on Sunday.
Tags: Basketball, Chicago Bulls, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Lebron James, Miami Heat, NBA Playoffs