The Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat are about to play a seven-game series, with the winner earning the Eastern Conference championship crown. There are valid arguments for both sides to take this series, but we're going to ignore both of those reasoned discussions, while still spending nearly two thousand words talking up what could be an ECF for the ages.
The curiosity behind this series is driving me batty. I don't know what to say, think, watch, listen to or feel. There is a strong chance that we could see four closely contested games in a row that finish with one team winning in a sweep. This could be a best of 70,000, with three overtimes per game, and things could come out just about even. The Bulls could decide that after 7 1/2 months of playing all-out basketball that they want to take a break. The Heat could lose interest after toppling Boston and play the martyr again. Things might not work out.
Or, we could get a series for the ages.
Between two completely different teams. Not in the expected "Heat be bums/Chicago be pullin' up der bootstraps"-narrative, but in the way these two teams function. Chicago has depth, and is at its best when the depth wears teams down. Miami has no depth and is at its best when its top two players wear teams down. And in a series where Omer Asik may have as much relevance as Chris Bosh, only the little things will tip the scales.
And anyone telling you that they know which little things will tip the scales is nuts. Mad. I won't offend your sensibilities by trying. Before the playoffs, I literally flipped a coin in picking Chicago over Miami in this expected series. As a Chicago native, I'm happy that the quarter landed how it did, but there was no way I was going to pretend to tell you that I had any insight as to what was going to happen. It's a month later, and I'm still in the dark. And even though I have obvious rooting interests, I couldn't be happier as we warm up to Game 1.
Mainly because Chicago's 3-0 record against Miami, as we've discussed several times in these pages, has no impact. LeBron James was out for the first of those games, with Chris Bosh missing the fourth quarter of that contest with a sprained ankle. He had been killing three different members of the Chicago frontcourt before that injury, and yet in the second game of the season series Bosh missed 17-of-18 attempts from the field despite plenty of looks that were as makeable and contested as the looks he had in the first game of the series. Sometimes, the coin lands on "heads" 17 times out of 18.
The third game? Miami was a dubious (though technically correct) call on Mike Miller plus a few inches away (on a James lay-in attempt) from winning. They could have had all three games. Chicago could have had all three games, and did. Miami is playing its best basketball of the season, Chicago is one 9-2 run ("Brewer with the steal!") away from doing the same, and we all could be about to see a series for the ages featuring two teams so disparate in so many ways that I remain boggled and clueless.
We've obsessed over the Heat all season. I've missed about 22 minutes of basketball from the Bulls this season. I still have no idea what happens next. That's supposed to be fun, right?
At the end of my work, I fall back on that coin, laying on my living room carpet this time last month. And while I don't dismiss the fine work of basketball minds that run deeper than my own, I still will suggest that you decline to listen to anyone that deals in any form of certainty with this series. It could be quick, long, lugubrious or cheery.
Let's just hope it's fun.
(Oh, yeah. The coin.)
My pick? Chicago in six.
It's time for the conference finals, gang. Our journey's halfway done. Four of the NBA's best and brightest teams competing for the right to play for a championship — what could be better? (NOTE: That's an honest question. It's not just an oblique reference to contemporary Christian band 33Miles. Any references made to them will be clear, direct and fawning.)
Here to offer their made-up perspective on the Eastern Conference finals matchup between the Bulls and the Heat are 7-foot-4 Utah Jazz center-turned-celebrity motivational speaker Mark Eaton and 310-year veteran/olde-tyme crustbucket Ol' Man Howard!
Mark Eaton: Partner, you and your fellow Miami Heat … Heats? Heat players? Members of the Heat? What do you call a single person on your team?
Ol' Man Howard: "Scoundrel," "buffoon" and "cretin," mostly. Damned preeners and cavorters.
ME: Kinda weird. Anyway, you're just eight wins away from an NBA title. You've got to be just pleased as punch with how your team's playing right now.
OMH: More gollywagons, sure. Not much looking forward to trying to cage this demon jackrabbit, though.
ME: You're speaking, of course, about Derrick Rose, the newly crowned MVP, who just averaged right around 30 points and 10 assists per game in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Atlanta Hawks.
OMH: Yip. Fast, strong, mean. Kind to his mother. Doesn't talk much. Doesn't smile much. My brand of bourbon, top to bottom.
ME: It sounds like you've got a healthy respect for Derrick Rose.
OMH: Mm-hmm. Sneak-attacking a piece of work like him with a bone-rattling screen? Gonna be special.
ME: Speaking of "special," you've got a pair of pretty special teammates yourself in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. They were sensational against the Boston Celtics -- can they continue their strong play against Chicago's younger, faster, deeper and better defensive unit?
OMH: Prob'ly. They're very good.
ME: … OK, then. Any predictions?
OMH: As the Lord is my witness, I will cut that boy's hair before series' end.
ME: Now there's something to look forward to. But I was talking about the series itself.
OMH: Ah. We ride the Bulls like Texans, slay them like Spaniards, then use every part of them like our native brothers. Heat in six.
ME: That could be, old friend, but I think we're going to part company here. I think Tom Thibodeau's going to find ways to give your teammates fits, I think Carlos Boozer's ceaseless screaming is going to bother Chris Bosh more than it should, and I think Luol Deng reveals himself to be some type of twisted human-reptilian hybrid, which could slow LeBron a bit. Bulls in six.
(Dan thinks the Bulls will win in seven games.)
Eric Freeman's Reputation Index
The regular season counts, but the postseason is where reputations are made. Tracy McGrady never won a playoff series and will always be seen as a disappointment. Derek Fisher lacks several fundamental basketball skills but will always be seen as a champion because he makes big shots when it counts. Chauncey Billups owes his entire nickname to the 2004 playoffs. The point being that playoff performance skews national perception of NBA players beyond all reason. In that vein, behold the BDL Reputations Index, your guide to what's at stake for the top names in the conference finals.
LeBron James: In the five-game victory over the Celtics, LeBron earned some measure of solace by beating a longtime enemy in dominant fashion. Once again, he's widely acknowledged as the best player on Earth. Unfortunately, like in so many episodes of "Behind the Music," it can all come crashing down. The Bulls are a formidable opponent, full of defensive energy and with a star of their own. Worse yet, for James' reputation, they are very obviously a team rather than a collection of talented individuals. Failing to defeat them would put LeBron in much the same situation he was in before ousting Boston. Maybe he wouldn't be seen as quite so arrogant or jerky, but people would believe him to be a player who, despite his prodigious gifts, doesn't understand that teams win championships, not a few really good players.
Dwyane Wade: For the most part, Wade has avoided the hate thrown at LeBron, in part because he was already on the Heat and seen as a passive beneficiary rather than the leader of a vicious plan to destroy the NBA. Never mind that, in the grand scheme of things, he probably had as much to do with creating the Big Three as Pat Riley.
But these are silly arguments for another day. While playing with James, Wade's reputation as one of the best players has taken a bit of a hit -- he wasn't selected for the All-NBA team, for some reason unbeknownst to all but Lakers fans, and he has occasionally suffered when LeBron monopolizes the ball. A trip to the finals would easily vault him back to his previous highs, not just because it would validate his sacrifices, but also because he'd be viewed as the star good enough to guide a former one-man show past a tough No. 1 seed and to the brink of a championship. In other words, he'd be the great man who showed LeBron how teamwork makes everyone better.
Tom Thibodeau: Thibs is a great coach, a guy who eats, drinks, and osmotically absorbs basketball. That reputation is warranted, and a finals appearance would only add to it. Yet beyond those standard qualifiers, Thibodeau is known as a coach who's figured out how to stop LeBron: His Celtics teams routinely beat the Cavs, even if LBJ also had some pretty great games mixed in, and the Bulls went 3-0 against the Heat this season. A series victory would add to that legend, but a loss would rob Thibodeau of a unique part of his resume.
Derrick Rose: Read any paean to Rose's worthiness as an MVP, and you're likely to see just as many references to his humility as to his talent as a basketball player. In a season during which LeBron was often vilified, Rose and Kevin Durant served as standard bearers of another code of superstardom, one defined by on-court greatness and aw-shucks wonder at getting to be so goshdarn famous. Rose is already considered one of the league's best players — his awards and the Bulls' strong season have ensured as much. But a defeat of LeBron and the dastardly Heat would elevate him to the status of a folk hero, with his humble persona serving as a triumph of good over evil. He'd be the People's Champion, not just the winner of a conference.
My pick? Heat in six.
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