The Miami Heat have been on a bit of a rough stretch. They have gone 2-2 their last four games, and the two losses were to far inferior teams (the Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks) whose key advantage was on defense. The two wins have both been in overtime against sub-.500 teams.
Given how much the defending champions have struggled against defense as of late, it's going to be interesting to see how they fare when the Chicago Bulls come to town. In the absence of star point guard Derrick Rose, the team has become a strong defensive squad that ranks third in points allowed.
Seeing as how each of Miami's losses this season have come against teams that play excellent defense, this could swing the game in Chicago's favor. However, Rose is a great offensive catalyst, and the lack of him won't help the rest of the Bulls keep up with Miami's fast-paced offense.
The stage is thus set for an excellent matchup between two Eastern Conference powerhouses, one that could definitely find its way to the postseason. Both teams will be hungry for the win, making for an epic battle on both sides of the court.
Time: Friday, January 4th, 8:00 p.m. EST
TV: ESPN, Sun Sports, WCIU
Records: Chicago Bulls (17-13) vs. Miami Heat (22-8)
Betting Line: Chicago (+7), Miami (-7)
Injuries: Vladimir Radmanovic (flu, day-to-day), Joakim Noah (flu, day-to-day), Derrick Rose (knee, out)
Key Storyline: Can Miami Win Against Elite Defenses?
The Miami Heat are the defending champions and are the best team in the Eastern Conference, but their struggles this season have been noteworthy. They are the second-worst rebounding team in the league, have struggled against elite defenses and almost lost to a group of San Antonio Spurs reserves.
This is because in having LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the starting lineup, plus Ray Allen coming off the bench, Miami has gotten a little bit cocky. Their offensive approach relies solely on overwhelming the opposition, rather than a formulaic and balanced attack, and opposing teams are starting to become wise to this.
In facing tough defenses, Miami thus struggles and goes into panic mode rather easily. The Bulls will seek to do this from the get-go, and their splitting last year's season series with Miami could definitely serve as a motivating factor.
At the same time, Miami cannot rely solely on the run-and-gun to take the wind out of Chicago's sails. Even without Derrick Rose, the Bulls have done a fine job maintaining pace in the Eastern Conference race, currently ranking fifth.
They'll look to climb a little higher, starting with a victory in South Beach.
Key Matchup: Joakim Noah vs. Chris Bosh
One of the main reasons that the Heat have struggled defensively this season is head coach Erik Spoelstra's decision to start Chris Bosh at center. Bosh has size for the position at 6'11", 235 pounds, but his approach to the game is closer to that of a scoring power forward rather than a true defensive big man.
Bosh is averaging 18 points and 7.7 rebounds per game this season, and is unlike most centers in that he likes to utilize his jump shot more than staying in the paint and taking high-percentage shots.
With Chicago's Joakim Noah guarding him, he's not going to have as many opportunities to stay in his comfort zone. The former Florida Gator has been a beast on the inside this year, averaging 12.8 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per contest. Unlike Bosh, nearly all of his offensive work is done in the paint, with his jumper a virtual non-factor.
Naturally, Noah's job is going to be simple tonight—make Bosh work in the paint. It is well out of his comfort zone, and he is not as good in the low-post as he is on the wing or from medium range.
It's that simple. Take Bosh out of the game, and the Heat lose their size. When the Heat lose their size, it becomes the LeBron James and Dwyane Wade Scoring Show.
That makes Miami predictable, and a tough defensive Chicago squad can definitely take full advantage of that.
X-Factor: Nate Robinson
The Heat will likely go into high-scoring mode if the Bulls' defense gets a bit overwhelming, which means that Chicago will need a scoring spark to help the starters reach the finish line. The man for this job is Nate Robinson, who has been a good bench scorer in his first season in the Windy City. Through 30 games, Robinson has averaged 10.8 points and shot 37 percent from long range over 21 minutes per contest.
He may only be 5'9", but Robinson plays with the passion and tenacity of someone much larger. He fights past the defenses of opposing players, doing all he can to put points on the board and help his team to victory.
Robinson has been slumping as of late, averaging 10.8 points and shooting just 38 percent from the field over his last five games. However, he has shot 43.5 percent from three-point range over that stretch, and he must be a force there and on the inside against Miami.
That isn't to say that Robinson has to be like Jamal Crawford and score an insane number of points off the bench. If anything, that's the opposite of what he should do. He just needs to choose his shots wisely and not get trigger-happy with the ball, as he has throughout his career.
By making clutch shots and helping teammates Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng keep up on offense, Robinson will give the Bulls the best chance to win. Depending on when those clutch shots fall, there may be an upset special brewing in South Beach.
The Heat may be on the verge of a three-game winning streak, but their recent struggles cannot be ignored. For some reason, the team has gone soft on defense and continues to struggle against squads that rely on that type of attack.
As a result, in a match that will be a thrilling nail-biter from start to finish, the Chicago Bulls will just barely come away with a win at American Airlines Arena. Joakim Noah's defense will prove to be just too much for Chris Bosh, and the impulsive shooting from Dwyane Wade and LeBron James that follows will open Chicago's door to victory.
Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer will carry the Bulls on offense, but naturally won't be able to bring home the win themselves. This is where Nate Robinson's scoring abilities will come into play, as he drives the lane and sinks some jumpers en route to the Bulls pulling away in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
The win will seal the Bulls' status as a team to beat down the stretch, while Miami's loss will leave some questioning just how elite the Heat really are.