The Miami Heat, against the predictions of several NBA Pundits, finds themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals after dispatching the Boston Celtics in five games. The win over Boston was arguably the most significant series win of LeBron James' career thus far, as he finally rid himself of the demons of 2008 and 2010 when he lost to the Celtics en route to finals appearances for Boston.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls, led by league MVP Derrick Rose, dispatched a pesky Atlanta Hawks team in six games and will be looking to make their first trip to the finals since 1998, which was Michael Jordan's last year as a Bull.
Here is my breakdown of their upcoming series.
The Case for the Bulls
The Bulls were the best defensive team in the NBA during the regular season, and in the playoffs their defense has been nearly as solid. They are giving up only 89 ppg in the playoffs so far, and they are getting strong play from their role players. Kyle Korver has come in and provided some solid postseason minutes, particularly in the Pacers series and Taj Gibson came alive in the Hawks series and provided great defense and rebounding during Boozer's struggles.
The Bulls have a stronger collection of reserves than Miami, which could play a role in deciding the series, especially since role players play best at home and the Bulls are holding the home-court advantage. On their home court in the regular season Chicago was 36-5, so they know how to win at home. Derrick Rose, the league's MVP, will certainly be a force to be reckoned with in this series as he provides the Bulls their biggest match up advantage. If he can consistently drive in the paint and create offense for his teammates, he could create problems for Miami's defense.
Finally, while it probably will not make a huge impact on the series, the Bulls were 3-0 against Miami in the regular season. Nevertheless, the outcome of the games leaves much to be desired in truly gauging which team is superior. The Bulls also are one of the league's very best rebounding teams, which could come into play as many of the games in this series should be low scoring.
The Case Against the Bulls
Although the Bulls were able to dispatch the Pacers and Hawks while getting wildly inconsistent play from most of the players on the roster including Derrick Rose, who had some excellent moments in the playoffs (Game 3 against the Hawks) as well as some woefully inefficient ones (34 points on 32 shots in Game 4 of the series), their play this postseason has not screamed "champion." They were outplayed through much of the first round series against the Pacers and have looked overly dependent on the play of Derrick Rose at times.
Meanwhile, Carlos Boozer, the Bulls' $70 million man, is claiming a toe injury is to blame for his utterly uninspiring play in the playoffs so far. Boozer's inconsistency has put more of a burden on Rose in the early rounds than there should be. Boozer did have his best game of the playoffs against the Hawks in Game 5. His 23 points and 10 rebounds will certainly have to carry over into the Heat series for the Bulls to advance. The Bulls post-defense has not been overly impressive with Boozer unable to guard even Tyler Hansborough at stretches.
The Bulls offense has also looked bad at times. They scored only 92.6 ppg against the Atlanta Hawks. If the team is unable to produce more offense, its defense against Miami will have to be picture perfect all series long to compensate for this shortcoming. The Bulls are also hampered by the fact that other than Derrick Rose, no other player in the starting lineup can create his own shot. This means that if Miami can find a way to limit Rose's penetration and kick-outs for set shots for Kyle Korver and Keith Bogans, it could seriously limit the Bulls offensively.
Who will play the best in the Heat-Bulls series?
The Case for the Heat
Fresh off the win against the Celtics, the Heat team the Bulls will encounter on Sunday will be a completely different one than the teams they posted a 3-0 record against. James and Wade are feeling comfortable and confident down the stretch of close games and that could be key to beating the Bulls. The Heat come into the series with three of the four best players on the floor.
Some have suggested that Carlos Boozer is a better player than Chris Bosh, and that Boozer should win the matchup against the Heat forward. But objectively viewing both player's performances so far in the postseason, it's hard to argue that Boozer has been better. Bosh is averaging more points and rebounds than Boozer while going up against an all-defensive forward in Kevin Garnett.
The Heat have also played the best defense in the playoffs so far. As much credit as people give the Bulls for their defense, Miami has given up fewer points in the postseason than Chicago (88.8 ppg allowed to Chicago's 89 ppg allowed) and is the only team that has yet to give up as many as 100 points so far. They have two players that can create for themselves or for teammates, which gives them an offensive flexibility that the Bulls lack.
The Heat's bench has been much maligned all season long, and the Bulls undoubtedly have more in reserve quality-wise. But it is too easy to dismiss the Heat's bench by just looking at their average point production, which is said to be one of the lowest in the league. The Heat bench has had a tendency to make "timely contributions" that mere stats simply fail to recognize: James Jones' 25 points against the Celtics, Joel Anthony's clutch free throws to put away the 76ers and Mario Chalmers' surprisingly aggressive defense against Rajon Rondo. All of these are examples of key contributions that helped Miami win critical games.
But perhaps the biggest advantage the Heat have is this: When the Heat play their best for 48 minutes, they are the league's best team. If they do that against Chicago, they have a great chance of advancing to the finals.
What will be the outcome of the Eastern Conference Finals?
The Case Against the Heat
They have been plagued with focus issues and inconsistent play throughout the season. Perhaps Miami was simply pacing itself. Or maybe it was still getting used to the offense. But the team has a tendency to play like world beaters one minute and look inept on offense the next. It hasn't reared its head as much during the playoffs, but Miami has flirted with disaster on occasion (blowing leads in Game 1 and 5 against Philly for example).
There are still questions about whether Miami can close games, and while James' 10 straight points to put away Boston quieted some of the concerns over the Heat's "clutchness," it still remains their biggest question mark going forward. Miami has to play consistent and focused against Chicago—a team that never stops playing hard even when they are down early in a game.
LeBron James and Chris Bosh have a tendency to settle for too many jump shots, when each is at his best attacking the rim aggressively. Bosh especially needs to test the Bulls interior size and challenge the bigs for Chicago, none of whom have a tremendous amount of speed to stay in front of him if he makes up his mind to go to the hoop with regularity. Miami's point guards have been maddeningly inconsistent offensively. This has to improve because you must make Rose have to guard someone on the defensive end. I don't see either point guard being able to do that unless Chalmers decides to look for his offense right off the bench. Although it was a misleading stat, Miami was 0-3 against the Bulls in the regular season.
This is the series in which the Bulls will seek to completely toss aside NBA history and win their conference, despite several roster flaws that have historically doomed similar teams.
For example, history says that no team has ever advanced to the finals with a shooting guard averaging as little as Keith Bogans. History also says that 22-year-old players have to develop and fail in the playoffs before they lead their teams to the finals in the postseason. History says that teams rarely win their conference with only one true playmaker since defenses will eventually find a way to neutralize the entire team's offense by curtailing that one player's contributions. History says that rookie coaches rarely make it to the finals. History says that teams whose point guard is also their leading scorer make it to the finals once every generation or so. History says that you need multiple superstars to win a title.
But...the Bulls have still managed to win despite these obvious weaknesses. Will the Heat be able to exploit them better than the Pacers or Hawks could? I'm inclined to say "yes," acknowledging that every time the Bulls appear vulnerable they find a way to win. Miami's goal against the Bulls is simple, albeit easier said than done: keep Rose out of the paint and you win the series. Rose is much less effective both as a playmaker and as a scorer when he has to make plays from 15 feet or more out. If Rose can be kept out of the lane, the Bulls offense could struggle.
I'm picking the Heat in six. I know the Bulls won the season series and they have both the coach of the year and MVP, plus a better bench. But NBA History cannot be ignored. Miami simply has more talent at the top than Chicago does, and if the Heat can get more timely contributions from its bench, especially from Anthony, Haslem and Jones, I think they will win the series.