Alright everybody, here's the matchup we've wanted to see all season. Miami vs. Chicago. Let the games begin.
The Bulls asserted themselves as the most consistent team throughout the regular season, and I kept thinking how great it would be to see them play the Heat in the playoffs. The possibilities are endless. Now that this series is upon us, I'm oozing with anticipation for tonight's game. Here's a few of the storylines that make this series Must See TV.
1. LeBron James—the "heir apparent" to Michael Jordan—is on a mission to win a title. And now, he has to go though MJ's Chicago Bulls to do it. The irony of the situation is unparalleled. If the Heat win, Cleveland will burn to the ground. Again.
2. Derrick Rose, at age 22, is looking to bring the first non-Jordan era title to Chicago in just his third season. He the youngest MVP in league history, but will he fold like a card table in crunch time with the pressure on against a hardened, veteran Heat team?
3. You have the NBA's most consistent team pitted against the NBA's most closely scrutinized team. It's drama city in this series, people. There may be tears in the locker room, fights under the rim and anything else under the sun. It wouldn't even shock me if Heat GM Pat Riley fired coach Erik Spoelstra mid-series to get another title under that oh-so-finely gelled mop of his.
4. The Heat romped through an overmatched 76ers team and then pulled away from an aging and battered Celtics squad. The Bulls were challenged a little bit too much for my liking against both the Pacers and the Hawks, two teams that lacked anything resembling a true league superstar. How will these squads stack up against talented, healthy and driven competition?
5. Both teams are considered to be top defensive units, and this is going to be a slugfest. While the Heat were labeled "soft" this season, James made the All-Defense team and Dwayne Wade is known as a shutdown perimeter defender. Meanwhile, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson will be bullying in the post for the Bulls. If they rub Heat center Joel Anthony the wrong way, all hell could break loose on the court.
Those are the first five things that popped into my head about this series. I'm sure if I thought about it for awhile, I could come up with 15-20 more. With all that being said, let's dive into the series a little bit more.
Series Stud: LeBron James
For those who aren't familiar, I pick a player in each series that I think is going to be the MVP. I went with DWade for the first two Heat series.
While I was right in Round 1, in the conference semis either James or Wade could have been deemed the Series Stud. However, James came through with some clutch shooting, stout defense and almost 10 rebounds a game.
I look for James to continue the hot play and take over this series—he's going to do it by being a jack of all trades. The "decision" is how Spoelstra wants to use him. Defensively, he's going to be with Bulls' guard Luol Deng on a regular basis. But James could be called upon to guard Rose's penetration into the paint. He also may provide a body in the post to frustrate Noah and Boozer. James has to do it all.
Offensively, he's going to play a significant amount of both point and power forward. While running the point, he'll need to facilitate the offense and penetrate to create points. As the power forward in a small lineup, he's going to need to face the basket and hit a lot of short jumpers, a la Michael Jordan in his later years. While posting up, he's going to have to hit slashers cutting into the paint.
If the Heat are going to win, LBJ is going to have to average close to a triple-double for the series by filling any role that is called upon him. I think he can do that.
Derrick Rose runs the show—we all know that. His Hawks series averages of 29.8 PPG, 9.8 APG and 4.3 RPG prove that he has been the man so far this postseason.
His effectiveness here hinges on how the Heat can come up with ways to stop him. Will they stick Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers on him and rely on help defense? Or will they plug the hole at the source and stick James and Wade on him all the time? I don't know what the best way to defend Rose is, but that's why I'm not coaching.
If I were Tom Thibodeau, however, I would look to alleviate some of the offensive pressure off Rose and see if the Game 6 resurgence of Boozer continues against the Heat.
Chris Bosh and Big Z are overmatched on the defensive end when playing against chairs, let alone actual basketball players. Boozer can have his way down low if he wants against these two, and if his Game 6 line of 23 points and 10 rebounds is the norm, the Heat will have problems.
Joel Anthony is a great defender down low (he has the highest +/- rating in the Playoffs so far) and I'm interested to see how he handles the superior post play of the Bulls. Noah, Boozer and Gibson hit the offensive glass hard, and if they get the rebounds, it could spell trouble for the Heat.
I kind of hit on this earlier, but I think the Heat's success against the Bulls lies on how they stop Rose. If they can shut down passing lanes when Rose penetrates, it will frustrate the Bulls into an offensive scheme they are unfamiliar with. If Kyle Korver isn't on the court, the situation gets even worse as the Bulls lose their best (and only) three-point shooter.
The Heat's success also relies on their ability to initiate a competent half-court offense against a Bulls team that plays defense with the best of them. James and Wade need to utilize the pick-and-roll often, so the ball stays in the hands of their two best players. Minimizing the control that Mario Chalmers and Mike Bibby have on both ends of the court, as well as pressure on Bosh—who inexplicably admitted to being nervous against the Celtics—are of utmost importance.
The X-factor is the type of impact that Udonis Haslem will have. He returned from injury in the last series and was largely ineffective. But if the extra practice results in providing even 10 meaningful minutes a game, he will bring veteran nerves and much needed depth to a thin Heat lineup. He would also add intensity in the post that the Heat desperately needs.
If the return of Haslem means the Heat can box out and protect their defensive rebounds, they will gladly run with the Bulls in the transition game. James and Wade are unstoppable when given a chance to create on the fly, and if they can push the pace of games it only benefits them that much more against a Bulls team that wants to create a half-court game.
The truth is that while the teams are very different, this series is extremely even. The Heat have the two best players, but the Bulls are the more complete team. Both teams need to play into their strengths and try to force the game into their type of tempo. Whoever controls the pace the most will win the series.
While the Bulls were the most consistent team in the NBA over the regular season, the Heat have been on a mission since LeBron and Bosh made the move to Miami last July. These teams both have the talent to win a championship, but I think that heart and desire are going to decide this series. Whoever wants it more will win.
My buddies and I do a year-long fantasy sports competition called the Gentlemen's Betting League. Before the regular season began, I picked a Heat-Thunder NBA Finals.
I'm not changing my prediction now. Heat in 6.