Somebody wake the Miami Heat up from their mini-vacation. Let them know that an actual challenge will await them.
Despite having a roster riddled with injuries, including to the former MVP for the entire season, the Chicago Bulls managed to win Game 7 on the road against the Brooklyn Nets to pull off an improbable upset.
Even if Derrick Rose doesn't plan on making his return this season, Chicago has survived and thrived without him. Injuries to several key rotation players hasn't rattled the Bulls at all, as they continue to play relentless defensive and make the most out of their short rotation with heavy minutes and furious effort.
Just counting the postseason, the Bulls have persevered through injuries or illnesses to Joakim Noah (plantar fasciitis), Luol Deng (flu), Kirk Hinrich (bruised calf), Taj Gibson (knee), Nate Robinson (flu) and Rose (torn ACL recovery).
On top of that, second-year swingman Jimmy Butler played all 48 minutes of both Games 6 and 7. Noah, despite essentially playing on one foot, played all but 13 minutes, 49 seconds of the final two games of the series.
It certainly didn't appear to hinder him, considering he ended the night with 24 points, 14 rebounds and 6 blocks.
Chicago will receive a day's worth of rest before playing the Heat Monday night.
Meanwhile, the Heat haven't played in over a week since sweeping the Milwaukee Bucks April 28th. And while the Bulls have played six consecutive wire-to-wire games and have dealt with a myriad of injuries and sicknesses, the Heat have only had time to rest and monitor the status of Dwyane Wade.
Wade, who chose to sat out Game 4 of Miami's series vs. Milwaukee, has returned to practice and should be ready to go for Game 1. The Heat sweep and the Bulls/Nets series going seven was the best Wade and Miami could have asked for in terms of recovery.
No other Heat player is dealing with any known injuries.
So, this should be another easy Heat sweep, right? It's the bullet train of a Heat team going up against the remnants of a coal-driven freight train that relies heavily on manpower. Miami has only had time to rest, while Chicago has been pushing through every last obstacle just to beat an underachieving Nets team in seven games.
But the Bulls are a team like no other. They treat every game like it's their last, and every single player has bought into coach Tom Thibodeau's system. No matter how undermanned this Bulls team is, the opponent will always get the best of that team Chicago is pushing out that night.
The Bulls are a threat because they pride themselves on their work ethic. They're in the second-round of the playoffs because they put in the same effort that made them a fifth seed in the East, despite playing all year without their franchise player.
Hard work from Chicago is what has caused problems for Miami in the past when matching up. The Bulls don't have the names that should have advanced in the second round, but they have all the attributes of a team that every coach asks for.
Which is why I shouldn't have to get into just how the Bulls managed to defeat the Heat twice this season, including a win that ended Miami's historic 27-game winning streak.
The first meeting resulted in a 96-89 win from Chicago, representing one of only three occasions where Miami dropped a game in the friendly confines of the American Airlines Arena. The Bulls pulled off the rare feat thanks to a staggering 48-28 advantage on the boards.
That doesn't even come close to the significance of the 19-4 offensive rebounding edge. Chicago ended up taking 80 shots to Miami's 65. Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem combined for eight rebounds, while Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer finished with 24.
Miami had five more defensive rebounds than the Bulls had offensive rebounds. Chances are high that if an opponent garners 15 more possessions to score, it's going to end up winning.
Now compare that meeting with Miami's 86-67 win on the road in Chicago.
Chicago won the rebounding battle, but only by a 39-36 margin and a 13-8 offensive rebounding edge. The most important stat, though, was Chicago with 75 possessions to Miami's 73. Suddenly, the Heat found themselves taking the Bulls out of their element and into condensed possessions.
Once again, however, Bosh and Haslem struggled on the glass and combined for seven rebounds. James and Wade picked up the slack combining for 20.
Guess what happened when Miami lost to Chicago? You guessed it. Miami got worked on the boards (succumbing a 43-31 advantage total, 12-6 on the offensive glass, and eight more possessions for Chicago) and couldn't stage a comeback after the Bulls' hot first-half shooting.
Bosh and Haslem? Five rebounds together, with Bosh grabbing four in over 35 minutes of action.
Go on and take a guess as to who won the final meeting when Chicago won the rebounding battle 45-44. In the Heat's 105-93 victory, Chicago held an 11-4 offensive rebounding advantage and had seven more possessions.
Noah was out, which paved the way for Chris Andersen to score a season-high 15 points to go along with seven rebounds.
Unlike the previous game, however, Chicago's shots wouldn't fall when it counted. But Miami didn't allow Chicago to dominate the glass, and it allowed the Heat to play their game. On both occasions Miami won, the rebounding margin was substantially closer than it was in the losses.
Chicago is grabbing nine more total rebounds and over eight more offensive rebounds per in their four meetings with Miami this season.
Overall, when Chicago wins, it wins the rebounding battle 45-40. However, in losses, the Bulls are getting outrebounded 43-41.
As strange as it sounds, the Bulls are going to try to beat the Heat by missing shots. They are at their best when shots are missing and ending up in the hands of hard-working rebounders such as Gibson, Boozer and Noah.
The Chicago Bulls ranked 29th in the regular season in three-point makes per game. This is a Bulls team that wins game through its defense (ranked fifth in defensive efficiency, according to Hollinger's rankings), rebounding (sixth in offensive rebounds per and eighth in total rebounds) and the ability to get opponents out of their element.
They are an excellent matchup with the Heat. Going up against Miami's spot-up game, which ranks first in points per possession according to Synergy, the Bulls rank second in the league and are holding their opponents to a 36-percent conversion rate on spot-up opportunities.
They also rank first in points per possession given up off screens.
The Heat shoot 43 percent on those shots overall and 42 percent from beyond the arc. Miami was held to less than a point per possession in all but the final meeting of its four games with Chicago. They rank first averaging 1.01 PPP, according to Synergy.
In terms of the Bulls' defensive system matching up with Miami's offense, they have performed as good a job as any other team can in limiting the open opportunities along the perimeter the Heat thrive off of.
Against the Bulls, the Heat are averaging only 5.3 three-point makes per game. Only against the Los Angeles Lakers did the Heat convert less threes. Miami only attempts 17.5 three-point makes per game against Chicago, only taking less threes against Indiana among teams that have played the Heat at least three times.
Chicago is a rangy team and defends the perimeter with the best of them. We can take a look at Miami's shooters in their four meetings with Chicago as an example of how well the Bulls have defended the numerous spot-up shooters of the Heat.
However, Noah's plantar fasciitis after a seven-game series and then having to deal with the Heat's offense that is constantly moving the ball may not bode well for his mobility long-term.
Shane Battier, a 43-percent shooter who relies on spot-up opportunities for 72.5 percent of his offense according to Synergy, is shooting 33 percent on 12 attempts in three games against Chicago.
Ray Allen, a 42-percent shooter who uses spot-ups for 33.6 percent of his offense and off screens 18.5 percent of the time, is shooting 36 percent from the field and 30 percent from deep in four meetings against Chicago.
Only against Indiana does Allen have a worse three-point percentage against a team he's played against at least three times. The same goes for the points per game he's averaging. Only against Indiana does he average less than he does against Chicago.
Mario Chalmers? A 24-percent shooter from deep against the Bulls. LeBron James? 33 percent.
Three-point shooting is Miami's bread and butter. They win games because they have an offense designed to have perimeter shooters as decoys on drives by the slashers and as realistic threats when the ball is passed to them.
Miami ranked second in three-point percentage as a team, shooting a tad under 40 percent. They trailed first-place Golden State by percentage points, but the Warriors also took two fewer threes per game than the Heat.
Do we dare look at Miami's three-point percentages in their four meetings against Chicago?
In Chicago's 96-89 win, Miami shot 25 percent on 20 attempts; Miami's 86-67 win, 23 percent on 13 attempts; Chicago's 101-97 win, 35 percent on 20 attempts; Miami's 105-93 win, 35 percent on 17 attempts.
Four games, not one of them where Miami shot its average or better from beyond the arc. Give credit where credit is due: The Bulls know how to defend the Heat better than any other team, with a possible exception in the Indiana Pacers.
Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler are all excellent individual defenders on the perimeter, while Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah are both exceptional interior defenders. They employ a frantic style of defense that suffocates opposing offenses into taking low-percentage shots and denies good looks, especially on corner threes.
Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com published an excellent analytic piece that looks at Chicago's ability to defend corner threes:
During the regular season, coach Tom Thibodeau’s defense held opponents to just 3.6 corner 3 attempts per game, by far the lowest number in the league according to NBA.com/stats. What makes the Bulls so tough is that they wield a strongside defense that loads up on the ball and simultaneously protects the corners. In other words, it is perfectly geared to take away the Heat’s strongest weapon.
And how does it work against Miami?
Remember when the Bulls ended the Heat’s 27-game win streak back in March? The Heat could get off only five corner 3s in that game, almost half their league-leading average of 8.8 shots from the corner pocket.
Once again, it's Chicago forcing the Heat out of their comfort zones and making them score in situations they're not always comfortable with.
Miami's going to need its shooters to take advantage of the opportunities it receives. The first round featured Allen converting 46 percent of his seven three-point attempts per game, but Battier could only manage 22-percent shooting on almost five three-points attempts.
But it's early. Plus, Battier didn't get into his NBA Finals groove last year until the Conference Finals. He has proven time and time again that he can come through when needed, which goes the same for Allen.
That being said, Miami in four.
The Bulls simply don't have the firepower and rebounding advantages have yet to hurt the Heat in a series before. When the Heat need to rebound the ball, they will, as evidenced by their ability to overcome Chris Bosh's absence in the series against the Indiana Pacers and their loaded frontcourt.
Chicago had their size advantage in 2011, too. It paid off in the form of four consecutive losses and a disappointing end to a season where the Bulls overachieved with the league MVP and a loaded bench.
Newsflash: Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli and Marquis Teague are not the same as Kyle Korver, John Lucas, C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer. Chicago's bench, as well as an all-around decimated roster, will not be able to hold up against a well-rested, healthy Miami team.
Don't think for a second that Miami hasn't forgotten about the game that ended their winning streak. This team has a way with making teams and players pay for regular season losses and trash talk.