This was why Lebron James made "The Decision" in July, or two years ago if you believe the postulation amongst the "experts": to beat the Boston Celtics, to play for the conference championship, to win championships.
The general thinking was that the Celtics would be the biggest stepping stone to the Miami Heat getting out of the east. You could see a sense of that in the way the Heat players, especially Dwyane Wade and James, celebrated after eliminating the Celtics in five games.
This was why the Bulls were still a confident team after losing out on the "Big 3" in free agency in July. They had landed Carlos Boozer, a back to the basket scorer who would take some of the scoring pressure off of Derrick Rose. They were able to use their free agent money on depth for the roster to make Rose the centerpiece of a deep team built on defense. Even after Lebron and Chris Bosh joined Wade in Miami, Bulls management said that they had the better team.
Now someone gets to prove themselves right.
Will it be the Heat and their superior star power? A team that has been carried by their dynamic duo of Wade and James, who are responsible for over 80 percent of their team's offense.
Or will it be Chicago with their MVP and superior team defense and depth? Throughout the playoffs, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has bucked tradition and continues to go deep into his bench for long periods of quality minutes.
Here are the key questions.
Can the Bulls play defense without fouling?
This will be the biggest key for the Bulls in this series. Thus far the Heat have made their living at the free throw line. They've attempted 104 more and have made 87 more free throws than their opponents.
Factor in that they win their games by an average of nine points, and you can see that the formula is simple: keep the Heat off of the line and they can't win. The biggest reason for this is that both Wade and James will often drive the lane and throw themselves into defenders to draw contact and get to the line. It's a good way to keep your team in striking distance when the shots aren't falling.
During the regular season the Bulls gave the Heat an average of 23 free throw attempts (seven below their season average), so it would seem that the Bulls were able to defend well enough to keep the Heat from setting up shop at the line. They will need to continue to do that in this series if they hope to win.
Again the formula is simple, keep the Heat off of the free throw line and they can't win.
Can the Bulls generate enough offense to complement Derrick Rose?
This, I think, is the biggest question mark for the Bulls going in. Rose is responsible for over 40 percent of the Bulls offense thus far in these playoffs and going into Game 6 against the Hawks it was 54 percent for the series. That is way too high.
Boozer seems to have hit his stride, having his three best games offensively in the final three games of the Hawks series, and his matchup against Chris Bosh is very important to the Bulls success. Boozer has the ability to neutralize Bosh on the inside by scoring and putting the pressure on him.
Against the Celtics, Bosh generally fled from Kevin Garnett when Garnett was aggressive getting to the basket. If Boozer can force Heat coach Eric Spoelstra to move Joel Anthony over on defense, that could leave Joakim Noah free to get under Bosh's skin and take him out of the game mentally.
On the perimeter Keith Bogans and Luol Deng need to make James and Wade pay for leaving their defensive assignments, which they love to do. You figure that Wade and James will take turns on Rose, but not for too long because they need their energy for offense. During these times, Deng needs to stay active and consistently make his matchup pay for defensive lapses.
Can the Heat offense outplay the Bulls defense?
This would be my biggest question for the Heat. Against the Celtics the Heat didn't shoot particularly well (45 percent overall, 33 percent from three) and they committed as many assists per game (15) as turnovers. This does not bode well for beating the Bulls.
The Hawks and Pacers showed that you have to move the ball consistently to the weak side and get good shots. In both of the Hawks wins they had twice as many assists as turnovers. But, this has not really been the Heat's M.O. throughout these playoffs, which really lets the Bulls off the hook.
If you attempt to run nothing but isolations and only pass after penetration, which is the primary way Lebron and Wade get their assists, you will not generate consistent offense against the Bulls. The Bulls recover so quickly on shooters and are so good at staying in front of the ball and playing the pick and roll. This is where good coaching comes into play, because it rests in the hands of Spoelstra to keep the Heat on point and not let them lapse into iso-mode.
Can the Heat play a complete series against a complete team?
In many ways, the Bulls are a perfect combination of the Heat's first two opponents. The 76ers are deep, but it is primarily B and C type talent with no real star to guide them. Add their relative youth and tendency to take bad shots at bad times and you can see why the 76ers had no real chance. Furthermore, factor in the fact that the 76ers best player, Andre Iguodala, doesn't buy into Doug Collins' gameplan and it just wasn't a good match.
The Celtics had the star power the 76ers lacked but no depth to help take the load off of the starters and give quality minutes so the old guys can rest. They were especially weak up front and weren't really a very good rebounding team even before trading Kendrick Perkins.
The Bulls have the depth that the Celtics lack, which ended up being their undoing, and the MVP to throw the ball to when they need that big play. Most coach's tendencies to shorten their bench during the playoffs have not been present for the Bulls as Thibodeau has refused to forget that some of his best lineups involve his bench.
Miami goes cold very often and they consistently start slow. The strength of the Heat is how well they close quarters and games. The Heat need to start strong and play consistently for entire games. The Bulls play very well from in front as their defense is built to protect big leads by not allowing quick shots. The Heat also can't try to coast after getting big leads because the Bulls have more victories after trailing by double digits than any other team in the NBA.
The Heat cannot allow this to be their achilles heel any longer.
Prediction: Bulls in 6.
Boy this is a tough one to call. I think it will probably go seven, to be honest, as these teams are very close in terms of overall talent. But, if you look at the NBA and the formula for winning championships, depth is often just as important as star power. The Lakers these last two seasons, the Celtics in 2007, and the Spurs before that, all got key contributions from their bench and role players.
Those are contributions the Heat haven't been able to consistently rely on. James Jones and Mario Chalmers have had their big games, but not consistently enough to reliably say they can in this series. With Wade and James having to be so much of the Heat's offense you wonder who will fill in if one of them has an off night, which is not beyond the realm of possibility.
Both of these teams play amazing defense, but the Heat lack consistent interior defense, and the Bulls (especially Derrick Rose) will test that as much as possible. Many of you will say two stars is better than one, and who can stop James and Wade?
The Bulls don't need to stop them, they just need to slow them down.
Who on the Heat steps up?
Many of you will say the same thing about Rose, who steps up, but the Bulls have more guys that have consistently done it. In the end, I think that reason and the Bulls ability to defend is the difference in this series. But, if the Heat out-shoot the Bulls by 50 free throws in this series like they did with their first two opponents, that could change things.
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