The Eastern Conference Finals have finally arrived, and they will feature a team that started the season with championship aspirations and another one that became a contender seemingly overnight.
Led by league MVP Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls took the NBA by storm during the regular season and led the Chicago Bulls to a 62-20 record. Miami, while facing its fare share of struggles during the season, seemed to peak at the right time and is playing its best basketball of the season.
There are several storylines going into the series: James will seek to validate his choice of Miami over Chicago, Rose will seek to stake his claim as perhaps the league's best player by ousting two top five players in the same series, the Bulls franchise has won four of the previous five series against the Heat and has never lost a conference final series against Miami.
The Bulls will look to continue that trend.
But perhaps the most interesting storyline is history: Can the Bulls, a team that basically centers around the efforts of one superstar and several solid role players, beat a team with more star power at the top? We shall see in about 48 hours.
In the meantime, here are the top 10 burning questions facing the Heat as they enter the conference finals.
Perhaps the biggest key for Miami in the series against the Chicago Bulls will be their ability to control their defensive boards. The Bulls are currently ranked second in the postseason in rebounding, while Miami is close behind at third.
Part of that defensive effort will involve the center matchup of Joakim Noah and Joel Anthony. Anthony has played exceptionally well in the postseason so far. His tenacity of defense and control of the glass have been keys in the Heat's playoff run.
However, Noah's role for the Bulls is very similar, and he will be a nightmare matchup for Anthony, who did not face a player of Noah's caliber at center in the first two rounds.
Personally, I think that Spoelstra should play Jamaal Magloire at center for stretches of this series. Magloire offers more size, physicality and toughness in the paint, and his 19-rebounding effort in the team's season finale against the Raptors shows that he can still be effective on the glass.
Nevertheless, if Anthony can make his presence felt in the paint against Noah throughout the series, the Heat's chances of advancing to the finals will go up exponentially.
Olajuwon, like James, said all the right things about Robinson "deserving the award" because of his great play. But secretly, he felt that he was the better player and sought to prove it.
The Dream simply dominated Robinson in that series.
While it's unlikely that a similar scenario will play out between the Heat and Bulls (mainly because James and Rose play different positions), there is not doubt that James will be looking to put on a show in this series against Rose and vice versa.
If James leads his team past the Bulls, it will prove that without a doubt, James is still the superior player despite the MVP win for Rose. However, if Rose beats James' team, it will open the debate about whether Rose truly has surpassed both James and Wade as the best player in the league.
After the Bulls began to take off in the regular season following their slow start, a lot of pundits began to question whether James made the right decision by joining Wade instead of Rose in Chicago.
The general opinion was that the Bulls have a stronger overall nucleus with several great role-players and a deep bench, while Miami lacks the pieces to trult contend long-term. When Chicago finished with a better record than Miami and entered the playoffs as the favorite to advance to the finals, many said James made the wrong choice.
However, with the Bulls offensive struggles and the Heat's late season resurgence, many are back on the "James made the right move" bandwagon...for now.
But if the Bulls oust the Heat in this series, the entire postseason will be focused on why James didn't choose Chicago instead of Miami.
"The Bulls were a deeper team, James should have gone there," the pundits will say. "The Heat, however, were just Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and not much more. He should have chosen depth over friendship."
James needs to win this series to prove that he made the right choice.
There is no way around it: The Dwyane Wade versus Keith Bogans matchup is the biggest advantage the Heat have against the Bulls. Granted, Bogans is a solid defender, but Bogans does not present nowhere near the defensive challenge that Wade faced with Ray Allen, who made Wade chase him through screens and truly work on defense.
Bogans will score here and there, but he is mostly in there for his defense. But if Wade gets going early, it will put the Bulls in a bind because then they will be playing 4-on-5 offensively. That plays into the Heat's hands defensively.
Wade struggled early in the postseason against the 76ers, who were throwing traps and double-teams at him throughout the series. Against Boston, Wade truly got going averaging over 30 ppg in ther series. He will need that same level of production for the Heat to beat Chicago.
Wade's ability to get going early in the series offensively against Keith Bogans will be a huge factor for this team against the Bulls.
A lot has been made about the Heat's inability to score in the halfcourt. But throughout the playoffs, one thing has become clear: Chicago needs to run more than Miami does.
The Bulls are not a great shooting team, and if they are forced to set up on offense and kept out of the paint, they will struggle to score.
Many of Rose's plays were off fast-breaks when the Hawks defense was not yet set. Rose was scoring on incredibly high percentage shots right at the rim or passing it off for open three-pointers or easy layups. This is the type of offense the Bulls want. They don't want to have to take perimeter shots, because if forced to beat their opponents from the field, they will lose more often than not.
The Heat must halt the Bulls transition game where Rose truly thrives. How do you do this? Limit the turnovers, get to the foul line often (you can't run in transition off made free throws) and do not take bad shots.
I think that even before I see the score, I will know which team won the game by how many transition points the Bulls score and how many rebounds the Bulls secured. If they have a decided advantage in either category consistently, they win the series.
Outside of James Jones' terrific Game 1 performance against the Boston Celtics when he hit five-three pointers and scored 25 points, the Heat's perimeter shooters have been very inconsistent. If the Bulls choose to throw traps at Wade or LeBron, the role players must make them pay by draining perimeter shots.
If Jones, Mario Chalmers (who showed signs at the end of the Celtics series of breaking out of his shooting slump) and Mike Bibby (who has really struggled offensively throughout the playoffs) can begin to make open shots, they will free James and Wade to do their damage since the Bulls will have to remain attentive to the shooters.
Mike Miller also must do more than be a stand still three-point shooter; that's what Eddie House (who Spoelstra must activate for this series) and James Jones are for. Miller is much more effective when he's penetrating and creating open shots for the bench players. He needs to be that third playmaker for Miami to really be effective against Chicago.
Hopefully, the Heat's shooters are getting a few hours practice in working on their perimeter shots prior to the series. If they can consistently make shots to loosen the defense on the Big Three, the Heat will be nearly unstoppable in the series.
There has been a lot of talk about this matchup being the key to the series. I'm not entirely convinced of that, but Bosh will definitely have a strong series in order for the heat to win.
Many pundits like to bring up Bosh's fluky 1-18 performance as evidence of some perceived advantage for Boozer against Bosh.
However, they fail to mention a few things: Bosh outscored Boozer in the two other meetings during the regular season. Bosh's last game against the Bulls was noteworthy by how well he played against Boozer.
Looking to redeem himself for the 1-18 effort, Bosh shot 9-14 and had 23 points and five rebounds. Boozer shot only 6-15 and had 12 points. If that trend continues into the series, the Heat have an excellent chance to win it.
But Boozer is feeling better about himself after having his strongest effort of the postseason against the Hawks, with 23 points and 10 rebounds.
Although playing against an aged Jason Collins is not quite the same things as playing against Bosh, who is younger, quicker, taller and more explosive than anyone the Hawks played on him.
It's curious that Bosh has the reputation of being a poor defender even though Bosh's defense has been pretty stellar all postseason. Outside of Game 3 when Kevin Garnett went off for 28 points, Bosh played strong defense on KG throughout the series against the Celtics.
Boozer, on the other hand, has had his problems defensively. He turned some guy named Tyler Hansborough into a superstar in Round 1 against the Pacers and had several defensive lapses that led to his benching in Game 5 against the Hawks.
The key here is for Bosh to be aggressive offensively.
He has the quickness and wingspan to have his way with Boozer in the post. He needs to look to exploit that matchup early and often in this series.
Meanwhile, Boozer will be looking to use his size to basically "bang" Bosh into submission. Bosh has had a strong postseason so far, but he needs to play his best now.
You could make a case that this is the biggest question mark of all.
Despite decent play for stretches in the games between the Bulls and the Heat, one trend was apparent in all three regular season losses: The Bulls executed in the clutch and the Heat did not.
When you consider the fact that none of the games were decided by more than four points, it's pretty striking. Had Wade and James been able to convert on a few jumpers down the stretch, they very likely take a game or more.
The Heat is feeling better about their chances of coming through in the clutch following the confidence building clutch wins against the Celtics in the final two contests of the previous series.
But for the Heat to be effective in the clutch against Chicago, they must play with the same level of intensity and focus in the waning moments of the game.
One of the primary issues the Heat had in closing games against the Bulls was poor spacing and a predictable offensive attack.
LeBron or Wade must trust their outside shots, because they are not going to be able to drive to the hoop for layups or free throws with the game on the line, especially in Chicago.
There needs to be ball movement and a willingness by James and Wade to pass the ball to an open shooter.
With James, Wade, Bosh and in all likelihood James Jones in the game down the stretch, there is no reason the Heat shouldn't be able to get a good shot off in a clutch situation.
It's a little bit too simplistic to look at the matchup with Derrick Rose and say that the Heat can't contain him because he would be paired up against Mike Bibby.
Of course Bibby cannot guard Rose, but defense is always a team job, and I can recall many pundits arguing that the Heat would get destroyed by Rajon Rondo in the previous series.
The Heat played excellent defense on Rondo in the two games prior to Rondo's elbow injury. The Heat were denying his drives to the basket, trapping him to cause turnovers and closing down his runouts to the basket. The Heat's defense was very effective against Rondo.
Granted, Rose is a superior player, but their games are very similar. Both do most of their damage on the break, both need to be in the paint to be most effective, Rose is a better shooter and Rondo is a better creator.
Nevertheless, finding a way to contain Rose will be vitally important if the Heat want to win.
They first must find a way to keep him out of the paint.
If Rose gets within 10 feet of the hoop, he's absolutely deadly. Mario Chalmers, who will be matched up against Rose through much of the series, has to look to score when he is matched up against Rose. He will not outplay Rose, but he must make Rose work on the defensive end of the court.
The Heat also must limit the Bulls transition attack. When Rose is not running toward the rim and basically staying perimeter, he is much less effective.
Wade and James have been the best duo in the postseason so far. All the talk has been about Derrick Rose, but Wade and James have been sensational.
Wade averaged 30.2 ppg, seven rpg and 4.6 apg in the series against the Celtics, while James averaged 28 ppg, 8.2 rpg and 3.6 apg.
They were as unstoppable a duo as has been seen in the playoffs in quite a long time, and if they keep that up against the Bulls, they should be punching their ticket to the NBA Finals.
One advantage the Bulls enjoyed in the first two rounds of the playoffs was playing against two teams (Pacers and Hawks) that did not have a consistent offensive talent. Sure Joe Johnson has had his moments and Jamal Crawford can score, but neither of these players are in the league with James or Wade.
If Wade and James can continue putting up the types of offensive numbers they are currently posting, the Bulls will be forced to find more offensive weapons beyond Derrick Rose, and that could be a challenge for this steaky Bulls team.
Quite simply, the Heat would be near impossible to beat if James and Wade play at the same level we saw in the previous series.
The Bulls hang their hat on defense, but they will need to make up for the offensive blitzkrieg from the Heat duo. That could be a daunting task.