Chicago Bulls vs. Miami Heat: Eastern Conference Semifinals Preview

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Chicago Bulls vs. Miami Heat: Eastern Conference Semifinals Preview

Joakim Noah and the injury-riddled Chicago Bulls are set to bring their resilient defense to LeBron James and the Miami Heat's front door.

Though the Bulls are nothing short of depleted, their stringent defense—coupled with a few out-of-character offensive performances—allowed them to upset the fourth-place Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Led by inspiring performances from Noah and Nate Robinson, Chicago was able to grind to a series victory in seven grueling games.

Miami had no such adversity to face in the first round. The Heat upended the Milwaukee Bucks in four successive games with an average margin of victory of 14.8 points.

James and crew will look to continue their stretch of postseason dominance against a battered Chicago outfit, but Noah and the Bulls will have already shown they'll go down swinging, if they go down at all.

 

Season Series: Tied 2-2

Playoff Seeds: Bulls No. 5; Heat No. 1

Playoff Records: Bulls 4-3; Heat 4-0

Playoff Schedule: Game 1 Monday, May 6, 7 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 2 Wednesday, May 8, 7 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 3 Friday, May 10, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN); Games 4-7 TBD

 

What Everybody's Talking About: Can the Bulls Piece Together an Upset?

Are the Bulls healthy enough to do anything?

The Heat have to be favorites to come out of this series on top, because they're, well, the Heat—and reigning champions too. Chicago's physical play has frustrated Miami in the past, though, and left many wondering how much of a guarantee a series victory (for Miami) really is.

It was the Bulls that snapped the Heat's 27-game win streak during the regular season, and did so without both Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose. They, unlike most teams in the NBA, have the defensive fortitude and predilection for physical play that can consistently stifle Miami's offensive attack.

Chicago was one of just three teams (Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks) to beat the Heat at least twice during the regular season. Of the four games the two played, the Bulls relinquished 100 or more points to Miami—who ranked fifth in the league with 102.9 points scored per game—just once.

A look at how the short-handed Bulls upset the Nets.

The Bulls defense was shaky at points against Brooklyn in Round 1, but they allowed the Nets to eclipse 100 points just once in their four victories.

To pull off the upset, the Bulls will have to thwart Miami's potent scoring daily, and they'll have to do it short-handed. Rose doesn't appear to be on the verge of a surprise return, and the health of Noah, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich is of serious concern.

Should the Bulls be able to maintain their "never say die" disposition and hound the Heat the way they did on numerous regular-season occasions, their enforcer defense will ensure Miami doesn't move on without paying a physical toll—or perhaps advance at all.

 

What Nobody's Talking About: Miami's Poor Three-Point Shooting

Battier (22.7 percent) is among the many Heat players struggling from outside.

With the exception of Ray Allen (46.7 percent), the Heat's three-point assassins struggled in the first round. Miami shot just 32.2 percent from long range against Milwaukee, a surprisingly low clip for a team that proved to be among the most lethal-shooting factions in the league. 

The Heat converted on 39.6 percent of their deep balls during the regular season, the second-best mark in the league. That they struggled so mightily against a mediocre defensive outfit like the Bucks—who ranked 12th in defensive efficiency—is slightly disconcerting.

Miami's 2013 playoff three-point shot chart (via NBA.com).

To be fair, the Bucks were among the best at defending the three-point shot in the regular season, allowing opponents to hit on just 34.8 percent of their attempts (eighth). However, the Bulls were even better. Chicago was fifth in opponent three-point percentage (34.6).

South Beach's finest are equipped to win when the deep balls don't fall, but 10 of their 16 regular-season losses came in games when they shot 35 percent or worse from behind the rainbow.

Against yet another combine that excels at eliminating the three-point shot from opposing offenses' arsenals, the Heat's suddenly poor three-point clip could prove problematic.

 

Key Matchup: LeBron James vs. Luol Deng/Jimmy Butler

Can Deng find success against LeBron?

A banged-up Deng and (depending on how healthy Deng is) a budding Butler will be tasked with defending the league MVP. Deng and Butler are considered two of the NBA's best lockdown perimeter defenders, but LeBron is described as unguardable.

For the first time in his career, LeBron currently averages fewer than 40 minutes per game during the postseason (36.8). Despite a career low in minutes, he still averages 24.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. To put that in perspective, should LeBron's numbers hold throughout the playoffs, he would be the first player in NBA history to average at least 24 points, seven rebounds and six assists in under 37 minutes per postseason bout.

Deng won't only be tasked with defending LeBron, but he'll have to score on him, too.

When going up against LeBron, taking him out of the game is impossible. You can only hope to contain him. Deng, in particular, knows this. The two have played 10 postseason contests against one another, and Deng has only managed to help hold LeBron to averages of 28.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game.

Something for Deng (and Butler) to strive for is relegating LeBron to the perimeter. He hit on a career-best 40.6 percent of his three-point attempts during the regular season but shot just 27.3 percent from beyond the arc in the first round. For his career, LeBron has connected on just 31.2 percent of his treys during the playoffs.

Chicago specializes in keeping opponents away from the rim. The Bulls ranked sixth in points allowed in the paint during the regular season (39.8). Limiting LeBron's impact on the offensive end is key if the Bulls wish to pull off the improbable upset. Doing just that begins (and ends) with Deng and Butler.

 

Don't Forget: The Heat Have Some Issues of Their Own

Is Wade healthy enough to play a high level?

Miami is often depicted as unbeatable, but it's not infallible. Especially now.

The Heat were dead last in rebounds brought down per game in the regular season (38.6), while the Bulls were eighth (43.2). Carlos Boozer and Noah are two of the most aggressive rebounders in the league and have the ability to make the Heat pay when they elect to run smaller lineups.

Miami has the option of combating Chicago's post presences with Chris Andersen, but aside from point-blank finishes, he forces the Heat to adjust the dynamic of their offense, making them easier to defend.

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Don't forget about Dwyane Wade's knee injury either. He was forced to miss Miami's series-clinching victory over Milwaukee, and although he has returned to practice, there are no guarantees about how well he will hold up.

Wade has played injured before (see the 2012 semifinals matchup against the Pacers), but if he isn't able to provide the same two-way punch he has for the past decade, the Heat are again not as difficult to defend.

Barring a slew of miraculous recoveries and a now seemingly implausible Rose return, however, the Heat aren't as banged up as the Bulls. No remaining playoff team is. Miami has to feel pretty good about that.

 

Prediction: Heat in six.

 

*All stats in this article compiled from Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

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