at Chicago 103, Miami 82 (Chicago leads series 1-0)
Offensive Ratings: Chicago 125.2, Miami 99.7
Some personal obligations kept me from attending the first game of the Bulls-Heat showdown, but I was able to make it to a local pub by tip-off to watch the action. Let's just say the mood was celebratory, to say the least. Perhaps overly so. It's understandable--the Bulls turned a halftime tie into a 21-point rout, just the third time in the last 40 years of NBA playoff action a team has won by that many without leading at the break. It's safe to assume Chicago now has Miami's attention, as well as those oddsmakers that made the Heat a prohibitive favorite in Vegas.
The Bulls set an amazing tone with their performance on Sunday night, but those already making plans for a June parade would be well advised to hold off. As impressive as it was, Game One was just that--an opening salvo. We've seen countless teams in the playoffs recover from a throttling and win the very next game. Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau said during the last round that "every game is a story unto itself." Sunday's story has been told. What did we learn?
Well, we learned first that the Bulls' advantage on the boards might be even more pronounced than we anticipated. Chicago's top four big men--Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik--all posted regular-season rebounding percentages higher than every rotation player on the Heat. (I'm excepting Udonis Haslem here as he's still in recovery mode, though a return to regular minutes would be a much-needed shot in the arm for Miami's defensive glasswork.) Even if something happens to one of the Bulls' four bigs, Kurt Thomas is waiting on the bench to prevent a drop-off in defense or rebounding from either of Thibodeau's top two units. Chicago has now grabbed 57.1 percent of available rebounds in four games against Miami this season, and the Bulls have retrieved 32.9 percent of their own misses.
Chicago will win the rebound battle against Miami in the aggregate and perhaps in every game of the series. However, the Bulls aren't likely to dominate the glass to the degree they did on Sunday. Chicago grabbed 19 of 46 offensive rebound chances and scored 31 points off the extra possessions, garnering a 23-point advantage over Miami in that department. Noah led the way with eight offensive boards; Boozer, Gibson, Luol Deng and C.J. Watson all had more than one. The Heat's starting center, Joel Anthony, had four defensive rebounds in 30:35 of play. He's got to do better, but everyone that steps on the court for Miami needs to get a body on a Bull. I'm sure that will be Erik Spoelstra's main message to his team on the two days off before Wednesday's Game Two.
Rebounding was not the only way by which Chicago gained extra possessions. The Bulls were also +6 in turnovers, forcing 16 Heat miscues leading to 22 points. During the first half, the Bulls actually were in the red on turnovers, committing nine before the break, directly leading to eight Miami fastbreak points. That changed after halftime--in a major way. In the last two quarters, Chicago committed a single turnover, while forcing eight on Miami's end. Derrick Rose turned the ball over four times but all those came in the first half. The Bulls had a 12-2 edge in points off turnovers after the break.
The sizable wins in offensive rebounding and turnovers led to the Bulls getting an 87-68 edge in field-goal attempts. It's not always a good thing when a team has that many more shot attempts, because it usually means its opponent is making a living at the foul line. Sunday's game marked the 63rd time this season a team has had at least 25 percent more shot attempts than its opponent. Teams are just 23-40 on those occasions. Chicago, however, actually had five more free-throw attempts than Miami. All those extra shots truly came from creating extra possessions. A happy byproduct for Thibodeau was that the offensive boards also kept Miami out of transition--the Heat had just two fastbreak points after halftime.
All the blue collar work by the Bulls easily offset the fact that the shooting (.495 eFG% for Chicago, .493 for Miami) was virtually even. The Bulls' efficiency was propped up by a 10-of-21 performance on threes, some of which came on kick-outs after some of those aforementioned offensive rebounds. Heat optimists might point at that fickle category and take solace in the likely regression. The Bulls' oddly inverted shot chart casts a shadow in front of those rays of hope. According to hoopdata.com, Chicago was 19-of-41 from 16 feet and out. On closer shots, the Bulls were just 19-of-46 overall and just 15-of-29 at the rim. The percentages of both categories are likely to regress. One helps Miami, one doesn't. In any event, the Heat can't count a sliding Bulls shooting percentage to mitigate all the extra possessions. If Miami doesn't solve its board woes, it doesn't win.
At the other end, the Bulls, particularly Deng, did a fabulous job of keeping James out on the perimeter. Nine of James' 15 shots came from 16 feet or longer; he made just three. Wade got his shots from closer in, but was just 7-of-17 in the game and, more importantly, attempted just four free throws. The Bulls ran Keith Bogans, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver at Wade, with plenty of help behind them. Wade had very few clean looks in the game. Chicago gave up fastbreak dunks to Wade and James to begin the game; almost everything thereafter was hard to get for the Heat. Ball movement certainly played into that. Miami had just 11 assists on 32 made field goals, dropping Chicago opponents to 5-29 when assisting on less than half of their baskets. I was heartened to hear the TNT microphones pick up Spoelstra echoing one of the points of emphasis from my series preview during a timeout: You can't beat the Bulls with isolation.
Those who decry the importance of depth in the playoffs were once again treated to the Chicago Way. Thibodeau continues to roll out a 10-man rotation. Five Chicago reserves played 10 minutes or more; just three did so for Miami. As I suggested in my preview, Miami normally has a big advantage against opponents because Wade or James is always on the floor, even when the opposition is playing its second unit. The Bulls' second unit may be the best defensive unit in basketball, completely negating that edge for the Heat. Even when Miami goes extra small, with James playing the four, Gibson showed that he's more than capable of guarding The King. The Bulls are allowing just 95.2 points per 100 possessions when Gibson and Asik are both on the floor during the playoffs.
Miami can do better on the glass, but that's going to be a disadvantage for the Heat throughout the series. The Heat need to push the pace as much as possible--which may not be that frequently--because they've got to recover its forecasted edge at the foul line and the Bulls are hard to attack off the dribble in the half court. And we also know that when the Heat do run, it is nearly unstoppable. In fact, the Bulls didn't get any fastbreak stops on Sunday, but Miami just didn't have many chances. In the half court, Spoelstra has to get his team to trust each other. The ball movement has to improve. He would do well to try to build upon the strong performance of Bosh, who not only scored 30 points on 12-of-18 shooting, but did the vast majority of that damage close the basket. He was 10-of-12 from 10 feet and in.
Things aren't likely be as extreme as they were on Sunday, but the Bulls' advantages are real. The Heat will get better games from Wade and James. The Bulls won't make so many three-pointers. The rebound differential won't be as acute. But make no mistake: Miami has problems and the Bulls are exactly the kind of team that presents the worst possible matchup for the Heat. Also, consider this: After a fitful start to the postseason, the Bulls have won their last three games by an average just shy of 18 points. We may simply be seeing the league's best regular-season team finding its championship stride.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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