Well folks, we have seen the cycle of NBA success really turnover this last year, haven’t we?
Now the Lakers and Celtics will be home watching the Bulls and Heat, just like the rest of us. There is a lot to consider in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, a series that will surely contribute to the lasting legacies of at least three brilliant superstars. So many fascinating questions come to mind, and I for one couldn’t be more excited to watch Miami and Chicago begin to answer them.
Here are five of the biggest questions looming as we all wonder who the next Eastern Conference Champs will be.
Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra is the protégé of the legendary Pat Riley and has managed to integrate eight new players into the team while preserving Dwyane Wade’s lead role. The Bulls’ Tom Thibodeau is a highly touted defensive guru and the NBA’s Coach of the Year.
Both coaches have a lot going for them, but Spoelstra and Thibodeau are not perfect. Not even close.
They are not coaches like Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, the master tacticians who have helmed 14 of the last 20 NBA Champions. Jackson and Popovich have always been known for their offensive systems, their adjustments and savvy with exploiting matchups, and their ability to draw up the perfect out-of-bounds play.
Even with two of the most talented rosters in the league, Spoelstra and Thibodeau have not excelled in these critical areas. Can either coach be outfoxed if neither one is doing any foxing in the first place?
The visibility of the sideline supervisors, their moves and the chances they take, will no doubt be an intriguing factor in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The now-departed 2010 NBA Finalist Lakers and Celtics entered the season as the two most popular answers to this all-important question.
But with LeBron playing for Miami and Tom Thibodeau coaching Chicago, it is no surprise that the Heat and Bulls have sported much-improved defensive units.
In fact, they are almost unquestionably the two best defensive teams in the league as they prepare for the Eastern Conference Finals. Both teams consistently keep opponents under 45 percent from the field, and under 100 points.
Miami clearly has more ways to attack and try to create defensive breakdowns. But the Heat haven’t always committed to their sets or to wearing defenses down this season. They certainly didn’t when they lost at the United Center on February 24.
There is a very realistic scenario in which the Bulls can steal a game or even two just on Derrick Rose operating in transition following bad Miami shots.
The Bulls will need those fast break points, because Miami will likely contain their half-court offense for much of the series. The Heat are capable of strangling the Bulls’ motion sets. That notion holds with the more probable scenario in which both teams play championship-caliber D, but LeBron and D-Wade deliver victory from the bounty of their basketball divinity.
Speaking of basketball gods, let’s talk for a minute about NBA MVP Derrick Rose. Bulls fans love the sound of that, but they also know there is still a lot for the homegrown 22 year-old to prove.
Winning an NBA championship requires a superstar player, one who can be the best player on the floor at the end of the fourth quarter and finish wins for his team. It’s a commonly understood element of playoff basketball these days, but it’s not always obvious who that guy is going to be.
The Heat will be the favorite in the series, and the main reason is those two astonishing closers. We expect to see Dwyane Wade play like the best on the floor. We expect to see it from LeBron too. With those two in Miami’s lineup, will it ever be Derrick Rose’s turn in this series?
The MVP is certainly capable of rising to the occasion. If it is his dribble drive contortions and lightning quick kick-out passes that become game-winning highlights, the Chicago Bulls will have more than just a fighting chance. If James and Wade own the last two minutes, the Miami Heat will own the Eastern Conference title.
Identifying the NBA’s most underrated players is tough. You have to watch an outrageous amount of basketball to judge that, and I’m only in the mildly laughable range.
But Lieutenant Deng (a moniker coined by Chicago MC and devoted Bulls fan Verbal Kent) is a veritable all-pro, and he gets no respect. He’s definitely the most low-profile star player on any team still in these playoffs.
He can drive and shoot, and he’s been the only guy consistently able to give Derrick Rose the support h
needs. He is the best on-ball defender that LeBron will have matched up against in the postseason. He is tough, but not a reactionary. He will never cost you a flagrant or technical foul.
Luol Deng is a massively valuable player, and I could easily turn out a whole column expounding on the reasons why. The point here is that he could be the secret ingredient in a championship Bulls team’s special sauce.
Injuries are a killer. Just ask the Boston Celtics.
The instant classic “Rondo Elbow Game” inspired us with the point guard’s transcendent display of toughness, but the Celtics couldn’t overcome the Heat and physical devastation.
I’m not bringing this up only because Dwyane Wade’s dirty hook move caused Rondo’s elbow-dislocating spill. Wade is, along with his new opponent Derrick Rose, a body-sacrificing gamer much like Rajon Rondo.
Wade and Rose are both the type of player who is always banged up, especially at playoff time. Their motors don’t feature a low-, or even a medium-intensity setting. They fly high and fall hard, and even though they are tough enough to play on, the Rondo episode shows us it still hurts the team.
If you saw Delonte West turn the ball over, and then commit an offensive foul on Boston’s last two meaningful possessions of the season, you know how impactful Rondo’s injury was.
None of us want to see one of Wade or Rose’s high-flying escapades turn into the next Rondo-like comeback, as uplifting as it was. But it is a potentially history-altering possibility.
I like the Bulls in seven. Drop your pick on us in the comments!