Though there have undoubtedly been several entertaining games through two rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs, we’ve still yet to see a truly great series. Now, with the Bulls and Heat set to square off for a place in the NBA Finals, that could change.
Chicago took the season series from the Heat, 3-0, but those three wins were by a combined eight points. In the team’s most recent matchup, on March 6, the Bulls used a couple late Luol Deng free throws to propel them to an 87-86 victory in Miami, part of a 21-2 stretch Chicago used to close the regular season and leapfrog the Heat for the East’s top seed. The Bulls have struggled at times during the playoffs, but they looked good in closing out the Hawks on the road, and have shown that they are more than capable of figuring out the Heat. Miami, for their part, enters playing their best ball of the season. In the Boston series, the rest of the NBA’s biggest fear was realized: that is near-impossible to shut down Dwyane Wade AND LeBron James in a playoff series.
Despite the fact that it contains the three best penetrators in the NBA in Derrick Rose, James, and Wade, this series is still a matchup of two of the league’s top defensive teams. Chicago and Miami ranked first and second in opponent FG%, and were both top-six in the NBA in Defensive Rating (Chicago 1st, Miami 5th) and opponent PPG (Chicago 2nd, Miami 6th). Both teams are fantastic at contesting shots, though Chicago does a better job of this at the rim with Joakim Noah. The key for Chicago will be to stay in front of Wade and James and limit their access to the paint; they can still hurt you from outside, but the less they get to the rim, and the less they get to the rim, the less they get to the free-throw line. Unfortunately for the Bulls, both players will be playing with a lot of confidence after vanquishing their biggest rivals, the Celtics, in just five games.
Chicago will do a better job defending Dwyane Wade than the Celtics did, as they’ll likely have Keith Bogans on him as opposed to the 35-year old Ray Allen, who couldn’t stay in front of Wade at all in round two. Wade lit the Celtics up to the tune of 30 PPG, 7 RPG, and 48% shooting (compared to averages of 13 PPG, 4 RPG, and 28% shooting in four regular season meetings). While Bogans will still have trouble stopping Wade (who doesn’t?), he needs to limit Wade’s explosions (such as his 34-point, 10-board effort in the clinching Game 5) in order for Chicago to have a chance at a victory. The Bulls also can’t let Wade and Heat gain a mental edge, something that Boston struggled with in round two. The veteran Celtics looked flustered, none more than Paul Pierce towards the end of Game 1, when he was ejected after a spat with Wade. Chicago has to keep its cool if it wants to prevail in what could be a long playoff series.
Offensively, the Bulls clearly revolve around Rose, and he will again be forced to shoulder most of the scoring load. But for Chicago to have a realistic chance at winning the series, Carlos Boozer needs to become a reliable interior scorer. In 44 career playoff games prior to this season, Boozer averaged 20 PPG and 13 RPG on 50% FG%. Through 11 games this year, those numbers are down to 12 PPG, 10 RPG, and 45% FG%. That might fly in the first two rounds, but in the last two rounds, you’re not winning a title if you’re getting that kind of production from your primary post threat. Boozer is strong enough to bully Miami’s frontline (though Joel Anthony has certainly improved over the last couple months), and he needs to deliver, especially considering that LeBron will probably guard Luol Deng, who has, to this point, been Chicago’s secondary scoring option. Boozer needs to offset that loss of production, otherwise the Bulls will be hurting for offense in this series.
Miami’s formula is simple: give the ball to James and Wade, and don’t get in their way. As long as Bosh can capitalize on those second-chance points (is it just me, or do all his points seem to come off jumpers from a rebound that bounces right to him?) and James Jones/Mario Chalmers can knock down a few shots from outside, the Heat won’t have an issue putting points on the board. And as long as everyone stays motivated on defense (shouldn’t be a problem), Miami should continue to be tough on that end.
At the beginning of the playoffs, I picked Chicago to beat the Heat in this series; I don’t know whether to stick with this prediction. Chicago was extremely impressive in the regular season, and I thought they were the exact kind of tough-minded, hard-nosed defensive squad that could beat the Heat in the playoffs. But so far, the Heat have been more impressive, and watching the Boston series, I just don’t understand how a team, even one as strong defensively as the Bulls, can shut down James and Wade. I think Chicago has a better chance than Boston did—Rose is better than Rondo, the Bulls are generally younger and more athletic than the Celtics, which is important against a team like the Heat. I’m going to go ahead and say that Wade and James will win a couple games on their own, but that doesn’t change the fact that Chicago is much deeper 1 through 10, something that has to come back and bite the Heat, right? Because of this, and the fact that Chicago has home-court advantage, I’m sticking with my pick, Chicago in 7. But if Chicago can’t pull this off, watch out. Because the Heat could own this conference (and gulp, the league) for the next decade. [Editor's Note: I got Miami in 5 or 6]