By Danny Martinez
Dinner is served, boys and girls. Your Miami Heat take on the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference, with Game 1 starting tonight. The series pits the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference against one another in what promises to be a slugfest.
The Bulls swept the season series 3-0, but as the Boston faithful found out, regular season head to head matchups can be fools gold. The Bulls’ victories came by a combined eight points and required a very unique series of events to unfold. But I’ll get into that a little later.
Heat on Offense
Through two rounds of the postseason and the entire regular season, the Miami Heat still have the best offense in the NBA according to Synergy Sports. The Heat excel in isolations, pick and roll situations and cuts to the basket. This is due to the athleticism of Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. Staring right back at the Big Three, though, is the best defense in the NBA.
Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau brought his defensive philosophies over from Boston, and in doing so led to the Bulls giving up only .84 points per possession, tops in the league. Thibodeau’s system has been said to cater to “stopping stars,” and this series will go a long way to determining that statements validity. There really are very few weaknesses in the Bulls defensive arsenal. Their biggest weakness in my estimation is in transition. Chicago is the best offensive rebounding team in the league, and as such can be out of position when opposing teams try to get out and run. If the Heat can get solid rebounding from it’s front line, they will surely try to push the pace. The Heat have the best transition offense in the NBA, so it’s definitely something worth noting.
In the three regular season matchups, the Heat struggled in spot-up situations, a key component to the offense. They never topped the 1 ppp mark, and had a particularly dreadful showing in Chicago on the night Chris Bosh went 1-18. As was the case in the Boston series, should the Heat knock down it’s open looks, they will be in very good shape.
One of the benefits of playing the Boston Celtics in the second round, is that they adhere to the same defensive principles as the Bulls. In essence the Heat just played five practice games. Games in which they were able to determine what worked, what didn’t and how to attack. I do not believe we’ll see the Heat perform to their regular season efficiency much during the series (happened only twice against Boston), I do think it will be successful. Both Wade and James have played well against the Bulls this season, and outside of the 1-18 game, Chris Bosh has as well.
Heat on Defense
This, to me, is where the series will be won or lost for the Heat. The Bulls are a very average offensive team (14th in ppp), with very few (one?) legitimate offensive threats. The Bulls’ most successful offense comes from isolations, pick and roll Ball Handler situations, transition and opportunities created from offensive rebounding. Quite clearly, the offense is all Derrick Rose and put-backs off of Derrick Rose misses. Unfortunately for the Bulls, the Heat are vey good in defending all of the mentioned situations, sitting in the top eight in every category.
Much gets made about how the Heat will defend Derrick Rose, and rightfully so. With his speed and quickness, Rose is practically impossible to stay in front of. It’s why the Heat’s defensive rotations must be nearly flawless in this series. I would look for Mario Chalmers to get the bulk of minutes against Rose on the defensive end. Rose doesn’t abuse Chalmers as bad as he does some others, and it allows Wade and James to roam passing lanes and be in position to help. This coupled with Joel Anthony serving as the back line may give the Heat a chance.
There will be a lot of cross matching in this series, particularly at the power forward and center positions. Joakim Noah will most likely defend Chris Bosh, and Joel Anthony will spend time of Carlos Boozer. For the Heat to win the series, Chris Bosh needs to outplay Carlos Boozer. Miami cannot afford to have Bosh go 1-whatever again. In the regular season the Bulls seemed content with Bosh shooting jumpers from the elbow. Many didn’t drop. After rewatching all of his misses, I think the Heat would be happy if Bosh was given the same looks again. Bosh missed looks that he usually buries, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a big night shooting at some point in the series.
The other matchup I’m interested in is based on lineups. In the regular season a the lineup of Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, Mike Miller, LeBron James and Chris Bosh was very successful against the Bulls. Obviously, Miller’s minutes have gone to James Jones, but the configuration of the lineup doesn’t change. For the Bulls it would force Carlos Boozer to chase Jones around the perimeter unless the Bulls went really small as well. Against Boston, this lineup outscored the Celtics by 23 points per 100 possessions. We’ll see if it continues.
Unlike the last series where the benches were a wash for the Heat, they are at a fairly large disadvantage against the Bulls. The Bulls’ “bench mob” has suffocated opposing teams all season, and is a huge reason for the team’s success. I was asked how the Heat would be able to battle the depth of the Bulls, and I think the answer was pretty obvious: play LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh over 40 minutes. There will be few times when any of those three are on the floor by themselves in this series, and hopefully that will offset the Bulls’ depth.
Also important to watch is the Heat’s frontcourt rotation. With Joel Anthony now starting, the center position is very thin. Erick Dampier played well against the Bulls during the regular season, but his absence all postseason probably means he won’t play at all. I’ve said in multiple places that I prefer the Heat’s center rotation to be an Anthony/Bosh rotation with limited time for Z, and I think Erik Spoelstra will stick to that philosophy. Juwan Howard’s appearance in Game 5 of the Celtics series was probably more cameo than recurring role. Bosh playing center means minutes for LeBron at power forward, which I think the Heat would welcome with open arms.
I am going to come off as a huge homer/Heat fanboy with my pick, but I’m going to go with the Heat in a 4-0 sweep. Obviously I can be wrong in a just a few short hours, but it truly is what I think will happen.
Last series I didn’t think the Celtics could score efficiently enough to beat the Heat, and the Bulls are even worse on the offensive end. It truly is a struggle for them to get efficient production, especially when Rose shoots as often/poorly as he has this postseason. I believe that the Heat’s defense has become underrated in the media, which I find astounding. If the Heat give a majority of minutes to some combination of Chalmers, Wade, James, Jones, Bosh and Anthony, the Heat will suffocate the Bulls’ offense.
At the other end, the Heat don’t have to be great to beat the Bulls. LeBron and Dwyane have been very good against the Bulls this season, despite the Bulls’ great defense. After watching the last series, I think that will continue.
People have thrown the “check the regular season matchup” argument in my face multiple times in the last week. To me, an eight point spread over three games means nothing. Looking into the individual games, it means even less. In the first matchup the Heat were without LeBron James for the whole game and Chris Bosh for the fourth quarter. In the second game Chris Bosh had a historically bad shooting night. The third was decided when Tony Brothers called a foul on Mike Miller for coming close to but not touching Luol Deng. I’m not making excuses. The Bulls won and have homecourt because of it. However, it took a very unique confluence of events for the Bulls to win. Events that I don’t believe will happen again.
Enjoy your dinner.
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