The first chapter in what may turn out to be the NBA's next great rivalry begins on Sunday, when two teams among the league's nouveau riche clash with the Eastern Conference title on the line. In many ways, the battle between these teams actually began last summer, when the Heat convinced Dwyane Wade to stay in Miami, and LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join him. By most accounts, Chicago was the runner-up in the sweepstakes for all three of those players and was even whispered to be a candidate to land the whole package, in which case they would have joined league MVP Derrick Rose. Could you imagine?
When I wrote the essay for the Bulls chapter in the 2010-11 Pro Basketball Prospectus , I devoted considerable space to comparing the offseasons of Miami and Chicago. I noted that Miami's supporting cast beyond the core trio was barely above replacement level, whereas the Bulls' roster beyond Rose, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah projected to be 14.5 wins above replacement. Miami had a big edge among core trios, with a 46.6 to 20.4 edge in projected WARP. However, I noted that Rose's projection was based on a performance record that had not yet caught up to his potential. If Rose were to break out in the way that most thought he could, then the real difference between the Super Heat and the Bulls could be all but erased.
We know how things turned out. The Heat struggled all season to settle on player combinations to work with James, Wade and Bosh, a battle that has continued into the postseason. They won plenty of games, but it wasn't as easy nor as spectacular as some thought it would be. Miami's post-free agent parade indeed proved to be premature. Meanwhile, Rose blossomed into one of the league's best players, won the MVP trophy and lorded over a team that coalesced better than anyone could have imagined. Chicago led the NBA with 62 regular-season wins, four more than Miami. However, the Heat had a slightly better point differential, and has gone 8-2 in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Chicago has gone 8-3 against the Nos. 5 and 8 seeds in the East, with plenty of anxious moments popping up during the first two rounds.
Every statistical projection and simulation suggests that this will be a very close series. Very, very close. By the end of it, we may already begin looking forward to the next installment in what may become an annual playoff serial. That's how much potential this matchup has for drama, excitement and theater. I can't wait.
WHEN CHICAGO HAS THE BALL
Pace: 89.2 possessions per 48 minutes (22nd NBA)
Chicago Offensive Rating: 109.0 points per 100 possessions (12th NBA)
Miami Defensive Rating: 104.9 points per 100 possessions (5th NBA)
James came out an declared that this will be a defensive series, and he's right. These teams really get after on the defensive end. The Bulls come at you with consistency of approach and waves of talent. The Heat have a couple of dynamic defensive role players plus two of the league's best wing defenders in James and Wade. Not only will defense dominate this series throughout, but much of the offense that we do see will be generated by each team's defense.
For Miami, it of course begins with defending Rose. Chicago's opponents the first two rounds have had some success against Rose by trapping him well out onto the court and getting the ball out of his hands, and Miami may start out in that mode. After some fits and starts, the Bulls' offense seemed to be solving that puzzle by the end of their second-round series against Atlanta. The key is to move the ball and for Chicago's second-tier scorers to be aggressive. That's how I would anticipate things will start out on this end of the floor--Rose will look to get others involved early.
Deng must be active early and often to keep James occupied and working on defense. James is more than capable of shutting Deng down, but Deng has to make James work for it. He can't just stand in the corner to shoot threes. Meanwhile, Boozer and Rose will likely start out with plenty of pick-and-rolls, as Boozer is a tough guard for Miami whether they put Bosh or Joel Anthony on him. A healthy Udonis Haslem would be better, but we're unlikely to see that in this series. Chicago needs a huge series from Boozer, who has been getting better and better in the postseason as his foot problems improve. Chicago always begins with the approach of playing inside out, and the Bulls can't deviate from that plan now.
The shooting guard position provides a conundrum for Bulls coach Thibodeau. Keith Bogans is the best candidate for guarding Wade, but is only good for 20 minutes or so per game. Any more than that, you're giving away too much offense. Kyle Korver would make Wade stick close, thus taking away some of his ability as a help defender. However, with both Bogans and Korver, Erik Spoelstra may elect to have his point guard move over to guard against the spot-up three. That would leave Wade on Rose for much of the game, with James likely finishing up on him. That's all the more reason Chicago's supporting players have to step up.
As always, the Bulls need to push the ball down the floor to get early offense. That's not necessarily because of Miami's defense, which is indeed strong in the half court. It's just that the Bulls are at their best when they run. They can't afford too many stagnant stretches against the Heat. They also have to maximize their possessions by avoiding turnovers and pounding the offensive glass with Boozer, Noah, Omer Asik and Taj Gibson. The Bulls grabbed 57 percent of overall available rebounds against the Heat during the regular season. Miami has rebounded the ball very well in the playoffs and I expect this to be a crucial department in its series against the Bulls.
WHEN MIAMI HAS THE BALL
Pace: 89.5 possessions per 48 minutes (21st NBA)
Miami Offensive Rating: 113.8 points per 100 possessions (3rd NBA)
Chicago Defensive Rating: 101.5 points per 100 possessions (1st NBA)
The matchups when Miami is trying to score the ball on Chicago's defense are fascinating. Because Miami can be so disruptive to Chicago's offense, I can't declare that this will be the end of the floor where the series will be decided. However, the problem of Thibodeau leveraging his system to control James and Wade is more interesting in terms of Xs and Os than anything that will happen on the other end. Miami has gone against two very good defensive teams in the playoffs, yet has a solid 110.4 Offensive Rating in the postseason. However, the way they've gone about hitting that number isn't a great fit for what they'll see against the Bulls. To wit:
PLAYOFF TEAM ASSIST%
Dallas Mavericks 62.5%
New Orleans Hornets 61.4%
Chicago Bulls 60.5%
Philadelphia 76ers 60.4%
Boston Celtics 58.7%
Atlanta Hawks 54.9%
Los Angeles Lakers 54.5%
Denver Nuggets 54.0%
San Antonio Spurs 53.0%
Memphis Grizzlies 52.5%
New York Knickerbockers 52.3%
Portland Trail Blazers 51.3%
Oklahoma City Thunder 49.0%
Indiana Pacers 48.8%
Miami Heat 47.7%
Orlando Magic 46.8%
League PO Average 54.4%
League REG Average 57.7%
This is the basic form of assist percentage, simply the portion of made field goals on which a team is credited an assist. The Heat assisted on 54.1 percent of its field goals during the regular season, ranking 25th in the league. This statistic is more descriptive than evaluative. In other words, it tells you more how a team plays offense than how effectively it does so. Even though Miami was prone to isolation play, it still put up the third-best Offensive Rating in the NBA. However, consider this: The Bulls were 28-5 this season when opponents have assisted on 50 percent or less of its made baskets. It's exceedingly difficult to play efficient offense against Chicago without moving the ball. The Heat is going to have to be much better at this in the conference finals than it's been the first two rounds.
Miami may be the best isolation team in basketball, as you'd expect from a team with James, Wade and Bosh. However, Chicago is the best team at stopping it. Miami's .93 points per play figure on isolations topped the league and was eight percent better than the league average.* However, the Bulls' .74 points per play allowed on isolation was 14 percent better than the league mark. The Bulls are better at stopping isolations than the Heat is at scoring on them. If Miami's offense devolves into Wade and James taking turns going one-on-one, the Heat won't win the series.
* -- By the way, the Bulls were second offensively on isolations this season, averaging .93 points per play.
I mentioned that rebounding will be a huge category in the series in the previous section. Here's another reason why that's the case. Not only do the Bulls need second-chance points to keep their offense efficient, but the Heat need the defensive rebounds to get its running game started. Turnovers will also play very much into that. The Heat don't run a lot but at 1.21 points per transition play, it is the league's most efficient team when Wade and James turn the game into a sprint. Chicago, as great as its overall numbers are on the defensive end, is pedestrian when it comes to transition defense. Part of it is because they crash the offensive glass and part of it is because they are unbalanced when Rose attacks the rim, but Chicago ranked 13th (1.14 points per play) in defensive transition. They've got to limit Miami's running opportunities with offensive rebounding and ball protection.
The last key area that I'll be watching in this series is the foul game, which puts the onus on the guys with the whistles. The Heat's offense in the playoffs has been propped up by a .313 mark in FT/FGA. Its opponents have managed just a .190 mark. (The regular season league average was .229). In three games versus the Bulls, the Heat had a .246-.213 edge, which is manageable from Chicago's perspective. We know that Wade and James will attack. We also know the Bulls will do a great job of walling off the lane. The series may be decided by how the officials see the end result, a possibility that fills me with dread.
As I reach the section of these previews that I always hate the most, I find that I am thinking of the same factors that I considered last summer when working on the book. The Bulls have one less superstar than Miami, however the Heat can't touch Chicago on roster spots four through 11. Chicago has more good players, but doesn't the star power win out in these long series, when there is plenty of time to rest between games? It's a tough call. I do think that Chicago's terrific second unit mitigates the advantage Miami has against most teams by being able to always keep Wade or James on the floor. It's as if polar opposite methods or team building are being put to a trial by fire. I don't know how it's going to go. However, when in doubt, I always opt for the bigger picture and the home advantage. The Bulls won more games than the Heat this season, and beat them all three times they played head to head. But Miami had a better point differential and all three of those games were really close ... you could go on like this all day.
Bulls in 7
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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