NBA Playoff Predictions: Miami Heat Are Team to Beat in Eastern Conference

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NBA Playoff Predictions: Miami Heat Are Team to Beat in Eastern Conference
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Some of the talking heads at ESPN are starting to panic over the Miami Heat's recent losing, as they are only 8-6 since the All-Star break.

The Chicago Bulls, the Heat's main competition in the East are rolling, as Marc Stein put it in his most recent power rankings.

If ''rolling'' means going 11-3 since the All-Star break, that's just three more wins than Miami's post All-Star break record, I guess I agree. That is until I looked at the schedule of both the Bulls and Heat.

Three of the Bulls' last 11 wins came from beating the Toronto Raptors twice and the Cleveland Cavaliers once.

Miami just had the tougher schedule during that stretch.

But, with two games against the Raptors, two against the Washington Wizards, one game against the Charlotte Bobcats and one game against the New Jersey Nets, the rest of the schedule slightly favors Miami.

The Eastern Conference top seed can very well depend on the two games the Bulls and Heat face each other. The next time they both meet is on April 12 and then for the final time on April 19th.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Up to this point, the Bulls are the better road team with an away record of 20-6 compared to the Heat's away record of 15-11.

If Miami wants to get home-court advantage they have to close the 3.5-game lead that Chicago currently has.

Miami does not necessarily need the home-court advantage since the Heat are a better playoff team than the Bulls, as they showed in the Eastern Conference Finals last season when they beat the Bulls four games to one.

This season, the Bulls have gotten weaker as the Heat have gotten better.

Chicago's signing of Rip Hamilton has not worked out due to injury. By releasing Keith Bogans, they lost some solid perimeter defense. Most importantly, Derrick Rose has been battling nagging injuries almost all season.

Even if Derrick Rose was completely healthy, LeBron James has proven he can shut him down defensively.

The Bulls have the same problem they had last season in the playoffs that they failed to address. They still have no player who can create his own shot if Rose can't get it going.

The Bulls have no one to shut James down, all they can do is hope he pulls another one of his playoff disappearing acts as he did as recently as last year's Finals against the Dallas Mavericks.

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If James can't get it going scoring-wise, Dwyane Wade could still take the game over offensively. Wade is averaging 22.9 points in 33 minutes per game this season.

What's even more troubling for Rose and the Bulls is the decline of Carlos Boozer who is averaging 15.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Statistically, he is having his worst year since he was a rookie.

One bright spot for Chicago is Joakim Noah, as he is still a tough defender and rebounder. He also raised his scoring average per game, even if it is only one point per game.

On the Miami side, the Heat added a solid defender and three-point shooter in Shane Battier while just recently adding Ronny Turiaf for some much-needed inside presence.

This season James is playing even better, averaging 26.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 6.6 assists and two steals per game.

For his part, Chris Bosh added 10 to 15 pounds of muscle in order to bang down low with players like Boozer and Noah. 

The Heat also added another weapon in first-round pick Norris Cole who provides an offensive spark off the bench.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Bulls are a team built to win in the regular season while the Heat are built to win in the playoffs.

Chicago's head coach Tom Thibodeau has his team so disciplined defensively during the entire regular season that his offensively-challenged team only has to get score above 90 to win. The Bulls defense ranks second in the league, allowing just 89.1 points per game.

But as the playoffs arrive, all of a sudden, so does the defense from other teams. Either players save their defensive efforts for the playoffs or their head coaches do not demand it from them.

Whatever it is, with teams raising their defensive output, the Bulls biggest strength declines. In the playoffs, a strong opposing defense shows how much of a liability the Bulls offense truly is.

During last year's regular season the Bulls averaged 98.6 points per game. In the Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat, after scoring 103 points the first game, they scored 75, 85, 93 in OT and 80 in the following four games that sent them home.

The old saying of "defense wins championships" needs to be tweaked to, ''defense with enough offense wins championships.''

And while Miami has both defense and offense, Chicago only has the defense. Which is why the Heat are the team to beat in the East. 

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