Somehow, the NBA survived its regular season and first round of the postseason with enough players to field eight teams, so we’re just going to go ahead and begin the conference semifinals. The minds behind Ball Don’t Lie are going to preview each second-round series, with Kelly Dwyer going against character for a more genial take, Dan Devine bringing his inimitable mixture of both order and bedlam, along with Eric Freeman’s legendary look inside the reputations of some of the series’ key fixtures.
We continue with the Miami Heat, and Chicago Bulls.
Kelly Dwyer’s Guide Vocal
There are short ways of saying that the Miami Heat will dispatch the Chicago Bulls in a tough, hard fought, second round series. The previous sentence was one of them.
There are long ways to say it, too. You’re about to read one of them.
Chicago’s years-long surprising record against the Miami Heat has been long predicated on the defensive work of two players in Luol Deng and Taj Gibson. Joakim Noah remains Chicago’s defensive gold standard, and Kirk Hinrich has had success in guarding Dwyane Wade in contests predating D-Wade’s pairing with LeBron James, but by and large the Heat’s makeup turns Deng and Gibson into the team’s two most important defenders. You can also throw former Bulls center Omer Asik into that mix.
Deng, sadly famously, is sick with a frightening and as-yet unnamed illness. Gibson was also notably hindered by an illness during the final two games of Chicago’s first round win over Brooklyn, and he has not been the same since returning early from a sprained knee late in the regular season. This isn’t to say Gibson has played poorly, he’s been fine overall, but nowhere near the sort of defensive dynamo that hedged and covered and made the Heat think twice in so many regular and postseason meetings.
Even if Deng returns for Game 2 or any part of this series, who is to say that he’ll even slightly resemble the indefatigable defensive stalwart that has given the Heat so many fits on or off the ball through the years? And that’s to say nothing of his offensive game, which was struggling even before he went down against the Nets.
Also, guard Kirk Hinrich can barely bloody walk, and Noah is 17 days removed from wondering if he could even play in the postseason. And Nate Robinson is still prone to extended bouts of sitting if Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau doesn’t like the shot he just tossed.
This is the part where you have to rely on the Miami Heat to blow out the Chicago Bulls, though. This is the part where paper comes to life. And while the Heat owns a championship heart that is far removed from the Brooklyn Nets’ lacking fortitude, these things tend to be neutralized against a team like the Bulls.
This is why you could see Chicago lose four out of five games to end this series by a total of eight points. Miami has the talent and the focus to destroy Chicago by 25 points every night out, but even with all these missing pieces (it’s fair to say that Gibson, Hinrich, and Deng will never be right in this series, and that’s assuming Hinrich and Deng actually play) you still have to find your way around a Bulls team that talks defensively and shares on offense. Those last two attributes are worth their weight in gold to coaches, and they produce great basketball from even middling prospects.
And the Bulls, sadly, are full of middling prospects at this point in their season.
Miami will not fold like the Nets. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade understand, unlike Deron Williams, that free throws are key to winning tough basketball games. Chris Bosh, unlike Brook Lopez, understands that you have to earn your way to good looks even if the ball is flying around the perimeter and away from your wheelhouse. And the Heat aren’t exactly ignoring a lame duck coach in Erik Spoelstra, as Brooklyn unfairly did to P.J. Carlesimo in the first round.
This is why the Heat will not lose this series, or any other series. The team is still top-heavy and can still make mistakes on both ends, but that won’t last for too long because of the fact that around 11 months ago, LeBron James really started to get it.
James wouldn’t be out of place on the Chicago Bulls, a team full of players who get it. These Bulls don’t get 30 points, eight boards and seven assists in a single serving, though, as James often provides. It’s why LeBron James is the best of both worlds.
And for Chicago, the worst of both worlds.
PREDICTION: Heat in 5.
Contribute to the Chaos with Dan Devine
For as much as we try to study and analyze every aspect of NBA life these days, in every playoff series, there are unpredictable elements – a player, a tendency, a set, a decision, etc. – that can tilt a moment on its ear, change the complexion of a game or even determine the outcome of a series. For each matchup during this postseason, Dan Devine will look for those X-factors most likely to wreak havoc over the next seven games.
(The phrase "Contribute to the chaos” comes from the song “Twin Size Mattress” by the band The Front Bottoms, which Dan likes a lot.)
Miami Heat: Ray Allen staying in rhythm with that quick release.
The 37-year-old sharpshooter was darn near automatic from 3-point range in Miami’s four-game sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks in Round 1, falling one make shy of 50 percent from downtown and finishing one make beyond 50 percent on corner 3-pointers (8 for 15). That included a straight-up vicious 6 for 9 from the left-hand corner, lending credence to the argument made by Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry before the season that Allen in the left corner is the most potent player/floor location combination in the NBA. (The fact that he hit 48.8 percent of his left corner triples during this regular season, according to NBA.com’s shot charts, also helps.)
He figures to have a rougher go of it against a Chicago team that prides itself first and foremost on eliminating the corner 3, though. Bulls coach and former Boston Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau knows as well as anyone how dangerous Allen can be when given a split-second to rise and fire; while Allen went 13 for 28 from distance in four games against the Bucks in Round 1, he shot just 10 for 28 total in four games against the Bulls this season, including a 3 for 10 mark from 3-point range. Only two of his attempts came from the corners, and both came on the right side of the court; he didn’t get a single shot off from his sweet spot against Thibodeau’s defense this year.
That defense will be without a couple of key pieces in the Eastern Conference semifinals, however. If primary ball-handlers LeBron James, a reportedly-returned-to-health Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers are able to beat the Bulls defense up top, get to the middle of the floor and press the paint, Allen could find himself a bit more open than he was against Chicago during the regular season, and even if the window’s not that big, it’s quite a bit easier to shoot over the closeouts of Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson and Marquis Teague than it is to get one off over a hard-charging Luol Deng (still not with the team) or Kirk Hinrich (likely doubtful for Game 1). If a slightly diminished Chicago defense falls off just a tad against Miami’s dribble penetration, Allen could find himself in perfect position to deliver daggers against his former coach.
Chicago Bulls: Don’t just get offensive rebounds – capitalize off them.
Any chance the Bulls have of pulling off upsets in this series relies heavily on the alleged non-basketball plays that LeBron James decried after Chicago snapped the Heat’s 27-game winning streak back in late March – the swarming on-ball defense, the aggressive helping and hedging on pick-and-rolls, the forceful redirection of Miami cutters in the paint, the willingness to take purposeful fouls rather than allowing easy layups, etc. On the offensive end, though, the Bulls also need to press their lone real matchup advantage, using the trio of Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson to not only hammer the Heat on the offensive glass, but make those corralled caroms count.
Thanks in part to a couple of strategic decisions -- moving James to the four and Chris Bosh to the five full-time to maximize the offensive mismatches created by a comparatively smaller (and All-World-caliber) frontcourt, the choice to aggressively trap pick-and-rolls and err on the side of passing-lane infiltration to force turnovers that spark transition offense – the Heat weren’t good at controlling the defensive glass this season, allowing opponents to rebound 27 percent of their own misses, tied for the seventh-worst mark in the NBA during the regular season. They were also the league’s second-most permissive defense on those extended possessions, giving up 14.7 second-chance points per game.
It obviously didn’t hamper their defense too much – after all, the Heat finished seventh in the league in points allowed per possession, were the league’s fourth-stingiest team after the All-Star break and won 66 games – but on a championship favorite chock full of strengths, this is what passes for a weakness. The Bulls must exploit it, taking full advantage of the boundless energy Noah showed not only in Game 7 but throughout Chicago’s first-round victory over the Brooklyn Nets (he led all players in the opening round in offensive rebounds), Boozer’s touch around the basket and Gibson’s combination of the two to get points on putbacks and prevent Miami from finishing off its defensive possessions.
And as basic as this might sound, the points are key – while Thibodeau’s team committed to crashing the boards against Miami this season, averaging 13.8 offensive rebounds per game in four meetings this season, the Bulls didn’t always turn them into scores. On Feb. 21, they got 11 second-chance points off 13 offensive rebounds, and on April 14, they got 14 second-chance points off 11 offensive rebounds -- they lost both times. In their two wins over the Heat this season, on the other hand, they scored 42 points on 31 total offensive boards, leveraging (comparatively) easy looks in unsettled situations and allowing their defense a chance to get back and load up against a Miami squad taking the ball out of the basket rather than allowing a quick outlet and rush the other way.
The absence of Deng (28 points, seven rebounds, five assists, two steals, 44 1/2 minutes of hectoring James in the streak-breaker) and Hinrich (seven points, six assists, five rebounds, one steal, persistent ball pressure and a well-timed takedown) will make reproducing the formula that stopped Miami at 27 straight an even taller order than initially anticipated, to say nothing of the step up in weight class the Belinelli-Robinson backcourt will be taking in meeting the Heat after scorching the Nets. If Chicago’s bigs can make Miami pay on the offensive glass for sticking with its preferred style of play, it could lift the burden on the Bulls’ overtaxed reserves just enough to decrease the deficit they face against the healthy and rested Heat.
PREDICTION: Heat in 5.
Eric Freeman’s Reputations Index
An NBA athlete can make great strides in the offseason, improve over the course of the 82-game schedule, and see his fortunes change due to a freak injury. Yet, even in a league where granular analysis reveals untold nuances in a single player’s game, the postseason still determines his legacy. A star can become a legend or be seen as lacking some necessary quality to win; a role player can lock down a lucrative local endorsement contract or search for a new home; a youngster can ascend to a new level of fame or fall into irrelevance. The Reputations Index is your guide to what’s at stake in each postseason series.
LeBron James: The only thing that could affect LeBron James’s reputation in this series would be the Heat’s removal from the playoffs, but that’s not going to happen unless he gets hurt, so let’s not even pretend I have anything interesting to say here.
Erik Spoelstra: See above, except sub “Erik Spoelstra” in for “LeBron James” and “LeBron James” for “he.”
Dwyane Wade: If LeBron gets hurt and Wade leads the Heat to a series win, then that would probably remind everyone that Wade is pretty good. But this scenario requires imagining that LeBron gets hurt, and I really don’t want to do that any longer than I already have. Let’s move on.
Tom Thibodeau: Few coaches in the league are as well regarded as Tom Thibodeau, a defensive genius with the apparent ability to turn career journeyman into effective role players (or, in the case of Nate Robinson, a postseason game-changer) just by his mere presence. But being thought of nicely isn’t the same as turning into the sort of generationally fantastic coach who can afford to sit out several years just to pick his preferred job whenever it happens to become available. Typically, a coach has to win at least one championship or lead the Knicks to one NBA Finals to receive that kind of blind adulation. Thibodeau is such a good coach that he might only need to win one or two games against the Heat to vault into that category. Eventually, it could get to the point where Bulls management needs to prove to Thibs that the franchise is worth his time, and not the other way around.
OK, I lied — I can’t stop thinking about this LeBron injury. I mean, if that were to happen and the Bulls won the series, can you imagine what that would do for Thibodeau? He would have taken a team with Nate Robinson as its scariest scorer to the conference finals! They’d have to build him a statue!
The Bulls Employee Who Figures Out a Way to Injure LeBron James: We don’t condone purposeful harm at BDL, but it stands to reason that the player who were to injure LeBron James, even if inadvertently, would become one of the most famous people in America for at least a few days. Really, it doesn’t even have to be a player — it could be a lazy mop boy, or Benny the Bull. If the person were to hire a good agent, I figure he could carve out a new career as a barely tolerated D-list celebrity, complete with a semi-regular gig on the next update to “Hollywood Squares” and an endorsement with a cut-rate pain medication company.
And if someone goes out of his way to injure LeBron James, don’t point to me as the instigator. I’m just saying what you’re all thinking.
PREDICTION: Heat in 5.