With the ancient Celtics having recently exposed the Magic’s lack of heart — not once but twice! — the Bulls and the Heat are currently the only viable contenders to rule the Eastern Conference. Sunday’s game in Miami provides a wonderful opportunity for Chicago to chill the Heat’s championship pretensions.
Meanwhile, the home standing Heat have the opportunity to prevent the Bulls from even dreaming that they can compete on equal terms with the holdover conference champs. Again, in this compacted and bizarre season, every game has an enhanced and disproportional importance.
HOW THE BULLS CAN WIN: Derrick Rose has become the most potent point guard in the NBA. Although his unselfishness and considerable ball-time result in his being one of the league’s leading assist-makers, Rose is really the Bulls’ go-to scorer. That’s because his shooting stroke has greatly improved, he’s nearly as strong as a power-forward, and his quickness and speed are otherworldly. Indeed, where other players are celebrated for the quickness of their first-step, Rose accelerates as he approaches the rim — making his second- and third-steps incredibly unique. Also, players necessarily lose a half-beat when they resort to some kind of crossover dribble, but Rose’s changes-of-direction likewise amp up his quickness. And with Dwayne Wade not at 100 percent, none of Miami’s backcourtsmen can contain Rose.
* Despite Rose’s domination of the ball, his assist:turnover ratio is a sterling 2.69. This careful handling will curtail the Heat’s opportunities to ignite their running game.
* Rip Hamilton sets the standard for perpetual off-the-ball movement. Since Miami’s bigs have to diligently help as Hamilton uses a variety of combo-screens to curl, dive, fade, and/or go backdoor, the Heat’s interior defense will be seriously compromised. The kicker here is that Hamilton’s jumpers have to fall at a much more consistent rate that they have of late.
* Although Shane Battier is seldom out of position, he has lost a step on defense and is no longer a stopper. Another reason why Hamilton could have a huge game.
* At 6’7”, 220 pounds, Ronnie Brewer has the size and the defensive chops to make LeBron James sweat to create good looks. Brewer also hustles in transition, and is an underrated slasher.
* Carlos Boozer is a strong-handed rebounder whose turn-around jumpers are impossible to block. He can also bully Chris Bosh in the low-post and in the battle of the boards. Bosh also tends to wander when playing off-the-ball defense.
* Joakim Noah’s long-armed rebounding, shot-blocking, and pass-deflecting could be critical since he can ignore Joel Anthony’s invisible offense and freely roam the lane.
* The Bulls have a well-rounded and highly effective second-unit: Kyle Korver provides the outside shooting; C. J. Watson pushes the ball and plays scrappy defense; Brian Scalabrine plays more than adequate position defense, can routinely drop treys, and is a savvy passer; and Omer Asik can defend, rebound, throw accurate outlet passes, set massive screens, and commit hard fouls.
* If Luol Deng returns to action, he provides another player besides Rose who can create his own shots.
*When Bosh sets up in an iso-mode, his teammates generally become spectators. Plus, when Bosh post on the right side of the court he likes to take his right hand to the baseline—on the left wing, he looks to shoot his jumper. This predictability plays into the hands of the defensive-minded Bulls.
*Miami’s frequent lack of hustle in transition defense can be torched when Chicago forces turnovers and bad shots. In fact, the Heat average over seventeen turnovers per game, second-worst in the league.
* As extraordinary a player as LBJ is, he tends to force his dribble into rush-hour traffic. He’s thirteenth in assists (7.2 per game), and fourth in most TOs (3.9). Overall, sixty-two players have a better assist:turnover ratio than LeBron’s 1.84. The Bulls have the knack of transforming TOs into easy scores.
* Chicago leads the pack in team-rebounding and are therefore primed to take full advantage of Miami’s inability to adequately command their offensive glass.
HOW THE HEAT CAN WIN: For all his other flaws, LeBron is simply the most talented non-center extant. (Comparing centers to non-centers is as non-productive as comparing pitchers to hitters.) If his bombs are finding their targets, the Bulls defense will be stretched beyond their capacity to seal every lane and every gap. Even more than Rose, James has the chops to simply take over any given game—and he absolutely must convert his free throws.
* Wade’s return will require some time to get him re-integrated into the total game plan, but he does add another electric presence to the offense, thereby taking considerable pressure off of both Bosh and James while greatly increasing the pressure on Chicago’s defense.
* Mario Chalmers has to shoot well and avoid making mistakes with the ball. Ditto for Mike Miller, James Jones, and Norris Cole.
* Battier, Anthony, and Udonis Haslem excel at drawing charges. In addition, Haslem’s mid-range accuracy and aggressive defense off the bench are significant advantages.
* When LBJ is doubled on a wing, either swift reversal-passes or skip-passes always find an open wing-shooter.
* The Heat show terrific defensive rotations on baseline drives.
* Rose frequently over-penetrates and will force shots when bigs collapse in the paint and interfere with his ability to spot open shooters.
* Boozer plays no defense, will fumble his dribble when two-timed in the low-post, has been reduced to primarily a jump shooter, and seldom plays well against elite teams.
* Since Noah can be pushed around in the pivot, strategic screen/rolls can force him to switch on to LeBron — who can simply abuse him down there.
* Since Brewer’s jumpers are questionable, his defender can help elsewhere.
* If Deng is still out, Rose must score points by the dozen. Miami would then be able to focus their defense at Rose with great success.
* Bosh has to nail his mid-range jumpers.
* The Heat cannot rely exclusively on LeBron’s passes to implement the kind of timely ball-movement necessary to overcome Chicago’s stingy defense,
* Both Korver and Scalabrine have limited mobility on defense, and Watson can neither shoot nor avoid forcing shots. Heads up play by Miami’s second-stringers could turn the game in their favor.
* The Heat have developed an unfortunate tendency to play with little or no intensity against weak teams, but they should be ready to rumble from tip to buzzer. Specifically, they must be more physical on defense than they often are.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR
- If Wade and/or Deng play, will their rustiness be exploited?
- Can Miami’s bigs provide sufficient help to prevent Rose from turning the corner on high screen/rolls?
- Since Rose depends mostly on his quickness, his hops, and his sheer talent to play defense, will his lack of fundamentals be attacked and cause him to be saddled with foul trouble?
- The outcome could easily depend on which team scores more on the run.
- It makes total sense for Noah to guard Bosh and Boozer to stick with Anthony in the endgame. It also makes sense for Miami to follow suit.
Charley Rosen is a former pro basketball player and coach and author of 16 books on basketball.