Generally, I write to an audience that doesn’t closely follow the NBA. They’re Bulls’ fans mind you, it’s just that most wouldn’t dream of spending a couple precious weekend hours during the regular season watching a Raptors-Twolves game (come to think of it, neither would I). With them in mind, I did playoff write-ups on the Pacers and Hawks to explain things like the late-season emergence of the Pacers’ Tyler Hansbrough and to sing the praises of the wondrously-erratic Hawk Josh Smith.
The Bulls now face the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. You don’t need to be an NBA fan to know about the Heat. In fact, you don’t even need to be a sports fan. Ask some little old lady on the street who plays on the Heat and she’ll get at least 2 correct answers.
The Heat Dynasty – Year 1
When Lebron James announced that he was “taking his talents to South Beach” to join forces with superstar guard Dwayne Wade and brought All Star power forward Chris Bosh along for the ride, the national media quickly declared a dynasty. Never in the history of the league had 3 in-their-prime players of this magnitude played on the same team. Many predicted that the Heat would shatter the ’95-’96 Bulls regular season record of 72 wins.
When the Heat got off to a disappointing 9-8 start to the season (making the record-breaking 73-9 somewhat unlikely), the national media wrote it off as a normal adjustment phase. This looked like a good call as the Heat promptly ran off a 12-game winning streak and won 21 of their next 22 to tie them with the Boston Celtics atop the NBA’s Eastern Conference standings at 30-9. It took a little time, but the Heat were where they were supposed to be and the rest of the league would soon be mere specks in their rearview mirror.
Didn’t happen. The Heat played well, going 58-24, but struggled against the top teams (2-9 vs the Celtics, Bulls, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks).
The national story line
Despite the fact that the Bulls won more games than any other team this season, beat the Heat all three times they played them and have home court advantage, the Heat are the betting favorites in this game. Why? A couple reasons.
First, it’s generally believed that the Heat have looked like the better team through the first 2 rounds of these playoffs. Both the Bulls and the Heat dispatched their first-round opponent in 5 games, but the Heat beat the Philadelphia 76ers who were considered a significantly better team than the Pacers. In the second-round, the Bulls often struggled to get past the lightly-regarded Hawks, while it only took the Heat 5 games to take out the Celtics, considered by some to be a legitimate championship contender. James and Wade have been brilliant in these playoffs, each averaging 26 points and 5 assists per game. Lebron has stepped up his rebounding, grabbing 9.4 per game and Wade pulled down nearly 8 boards per game...eye-popping for a guard. Bosh has provided solid support, averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds.
The second reason the Heat are favored is that many believe that the regular season was nothing more than a long and tedious pre-requisite to what this team was built for…winning championships. This is why James left Cleveland and Bosh left Toronto. It’s why all 3 of the Heat’s stars took less than the max money each would have received if financial considerations were put at the forefront. The Heat trio is superbly-talented and highly-motivated. The playoffs are where the stars truly shine and it remains unarguable that the Heat lead the NBA in star power. They simply will not be denied…it’s their destiny.
So who else plays for the Heat?
It’s a fair question, and since Heat Head Coach Eric Spoelstra is allowed to put 5 players out on the floor, he probably will. The Heat’s supporting cast is pretty much made up of two types of players – big guys who try to set screens, rebound, block shots and not shoot and little guys who hang out at the 3-point line waiting for a wide open shot.
Leading the big guys is 6-9 center Joel Anthony, an undrafted free agent who has been with the Heat since the ’07-’08 season. He’ll pull down some rebounds for them (5.7 per game in the playoffs), but his thing is blocking shots…he leads the Heat with 16 in the 10 Heat playoff games. Zydrunas Ilgauskas is 7-3 and was once a heckuva player, making 2 All Star game appearances back in the day. After 12 years in Cleveland, 7 of them playing alongside James, he signed with the Heat on a minimum salary contract (over a $10million pay cut…yes, he’s the prototypical “ring-chaser). He was never fast, but he’s stunningly slow at age 35, but he can still hit the occasional open jumper if you leave him open. At age 38, 6-9 forward/center Juwan Howard certainly has experience on his side. The Heat are Howard’s 8th NBA team, though in truth he’s played for several of those 8 more than once. Look for him to play about 7 minutes/game and set a couple screens…sad, but that’s what it’s come down to for Howard. Lastly, there’s Udonis Haslem. Haslem may be the Heat’s 4th-best player, but has been sidelined with a foot injury since November. He made his return in the Heat’s game 4 win in Boston and played 3 minutes of hideous basketball earning him a DNP-CD (did not play-coach’s decision) in the deciding game 5. Haslem could be a “wild card” in the series with the Bulls.
Of the little guys, Mario Chalmers and recently-acquired veteran Mike Bibby will get most of the point guard minutes, but don’t expect much in the way of playmaking from them…they’re in the lineup to occasionally bring the ball up the court and then wait at the perimeter if needed. Chalmers can defend some. Bibby hardly even tries anymore. If neither Chalmers nor Bibby are hitting their 3s, Spoelstra may send journeyman chucker Eddie House into the game for a heat-check.
One Heat bench player who doesn’t fit either of the 2 categories is 6-8 forward James Jones. Jones is a good 3-point shooter who has been very good in these playoffs. He was on fire in game 1 of the Celtics series, knocking down 5 of 7 treys and scoring 25 points…he actually outscored James by 3. Rounding out the Heat bench is veteran 6-8 small forward Mike Miller. By design, Miller should be the Heat’s #4 player (he’s the 4th-highest paid) and resident 3-point marksman (40% for his career), but has had an injury-plagued season. Jones has pretty much taken over Miller’s role on the team.
This figures to be a very non-traditional series matchup-wise. For the Bulls, Luol Deng figures to be on James nearly all the time and Carlos Boozer will likely be assigned to defend the Heat’s non-shooting big man (mostly Anthony and Ilgauskas). Beyond that it’ll probably be a mix and match situation. Wade figures to see mostly Bogans and Brewer, but Derrick Rose may guard him as well, particularly when Kyle Korver is in the game with Rose. Noah figures to have Bosh. This figures to be a much better defensive series for Korver since, as has been mentioned, the Heat almost always have someone in their lineup whose job it is to hang out at the 3-point line…that’s your guy, Kyle.
For the Heat, the obvious key is to stop Rose. Rose will probably start out being defended by Chalmers, with Wade on Bogans. This leaves Wade will be free to provide aggressive weakside help, one of many things at which he excels. Wade will also defend Rose and particularly late in games, James will take his turn in an effort to get Derrick to give up the ball. Boozer could be defended by either Anthony or Bosh, but if Boozer gets hot, it’ll be Anthony (the better defender).
In the interest of full disclosure
I don’t like the Heat, but most of all I don’t like Lebron James. He’s a magnificent basketball player, the most talented on the planet, but first and foremost he’s an actor playing the Lebron role in an effort to increase the market share of the “Lebron brand.” I should point out here that, unlike most James-haters, I didn’t like him in his last few years with the Cavaliers.
Watching him on and off the court, I often wonder how long James rehearses his myriad facial expressions. I particularly enjoy his “determination” and “astonishment” looks…the latter can be seen every time he either misses an inside shot (I was fouled) or is called for a foul (Are U Serious?). I honestly believe that James brushes his teeth as if he’s on camera. Great player and totally self-absorbed, narcissistic douchebag.
I also don’t like Chris Bosh, but again it’s for reasons that are different from many. I really liked his game in Toronto and believed that in his last season there he was on the brink of superstardom (24 points, 11 rebounds and a superstar-level 25.0 Player Efficiency Rating…Wade posted a 25.6 PER this season). Why oh why would a 25-year old kid with that kind of talent turn himself into a “ring-chaser?” What a freakin’ waste.
I actually like Dwayne Wade and believe Chicago fans have treated him harshly. Did he use the Bulls for leverage last summer? Almost certainly. I might have done the same thing in his shoes. I like him because he’s a tough-minded competitor who is a basketball player first and a pitchman only in his spare time.
Oh yeah, I’ve always hated Pat Reilly.
Buckle up, kids…this series is going to be an “E” ticket ride, or as the kids say, “Epic.” I’ve heard many opine that this series will determine the future 5 years of the NBA Eastern Conference, but I wouldn’t go that far. However, the Heat and the Bulls figure to be elite teams for the foreseeable future and one of them is going to walk away from this one with a mental edge.
For each team, the last time they took the court, they were had what could be viewed as “statement victories,” yet some belittled their achievements. The Heat had their emotional home win over the Celtics, but some pointed out that the Celts were handicapped by their one-armed point guard, Rajon Rondo. The Bulls totally dominated the Hawks in Atlanta, but some said that the Hawks lackluster effort in front of their home fans just proved that they remain nothing more but pretenders. As for me, they looked like two elite teams doing what they needed to do when they needed to do it.
I find myself compelled to pick the Bulls in 7. The fact that I’m a Bulls’ fan and also having a genuine dislike for the Heat undoubtedly have entered into my thinking. Also, my coaching bias tells me that a well-coached team can overcome superior talent (y’all saw Hoosiers, didn’t ya?). I’m convinced that Thibodeau is the better coach, or at least the coach who is allowed by his players to do the better coaching job.
I can’t wait for this one to start.