Miami 85, at Chicago 75
Offensive Ratings: Miami 104.2, Chicago 91.9
After not being able to attend Game One in the Eastern Conference Finals, I received my introduction to the zoo that is the conference finals the night of Game Two. There was media coming through out of the woodwork--everyone with the ability to pull a credential was on hand at the United Center. All those NBA luminaries that traffic through the arena through the course of a season, they were there, except all at the same time. Dennis Rodman even had a pregame conference, which I skipped as I was still digesting my pregame meal. Ernie, Kenny, Chris, Chuck ... they were all circled up at the corner of the court. Game Two was a big game, and even before it started you definitely had that feel.
Of course the game wasn't big because of who was watching it, but because of who was on the court. As per usual, I sketched out my pregame questions. Here's what I came up with: How does the Heat address the rebounding deficiency? Does Miami adopt a more egalitarian approach on offense and, more importantly, should they? Can Chicago score more in the paint to offset a likely regression in outside shooting percentage? Is there a benefit to running more 2/3 pick-and-roll with Wade and James? Can the Bulls control turnovers as they did in the second half, or can Miami force them like they did in the first?
The rebounding issue that had dominated the off-day discussions were still a topic of debate 45 minutes before the game began, when the starting lineups and inactive lists were issued. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra once again opted to leave seven-footers Erick Dampier and Zydrunas Ilgauskas on the bench in civvies. That decision raised a lot of eyebrows after the shellacking the Heat got on the boards in Game One. But, really, would activating either of those AARP-eligible centers have done anything to fix the Bulls' rebounding advantage? Percentage-wise, they are on a par with Juwan Howard and Jamaal Magloire has by far the best rebounding percentages on the Heat--on both ends of the floor. Personally, I see more utility in having Ilgauskas active than Howard, but it's really neither here nor there. If Miami was going to close the glass gap, it wasn't going to be because of any of the players mentioned in this paragraph.
As it turned out, Miami did close the rebounding gap in Game Two. And while the game had many earmarks of a "big game" it certainly didn't look like championship basketball from an aesthetic standpoint. Let's face it, the game was no Picasso. The Heat scored two points in the first 7:31 of the fourth quarter; the Bulls scored two points in the final 7:16. Just 24 points were scored altogether in the final period. The Bulls managed to crawl out of an 11-point hole in the third quarter, tying the game 73-all on a Taj Gibson dunk. But the Bulls then went scoreless on three straight possessions when they could have grabbed the lead. LeBron James made a couple of shots, and the series was tied.
As mentioned, the Heat did close the rebound advantage, but as Erik Spoelstra asked rhetorically after the game: "Did we really solve it?" Not really. The Heat grabbed more total rebounds in the game, but the Bulls shot 34.1 percent from the field. Miami had 35 defensive rebounds, but still allowed Chicago to grab more than a third of its own misses. No, the problem is still there and if the Bulls had hit a few shots, the rebounding disparity would still be a key point of conversation in the matchup.
Chicago's rebounding profligacy ebbed considerably when Udonis Haslem came onto the floor for Miami. After totaling just seven minutes in the playoffs after returning from a lisfranc injury suffered way back in the midseason throes of the last NFL season, Haslem fueled Miami's Game Two win. He had 13 points and five rebounds, and certainly seemed to inspire his teammates. After the Bulls grabbed seven early offensive boards, they then went 13 minutes without one, a stretch that more or less coincided with Haslem's presence on the floor. Then, as if to put an exclamation point on it, Joakim Noah scored on a putback on the very first possession after Haslem left the floor. However, before we get to excited about declaring Haslem as the new X-factor in the series, consider this: Miami was outscored by 11 points while he was on the floor in Game Two.
DeWayne Wade (24 points, 8-of-16 shooting) and LeBron James (29 points, 12-of-21 shooting) were more productive in the second game. But Chicago still held Miami to 1.04 points per possessions. In five games against Chicago this season, the Heat have now scored thusly: 1.08, 0.97, 1.04, 1.00 and 1.04. You can never declare that, hey, this is it--Miami can't score efficiently on the Bulls. Of course it could happen. Chicago could commit a flurry of turnovers leading to all sorts of highlight reel dunks. James Jones and the other Miami shooters could get hot from three-point range. However, it seems that more often than not, the Bulls' defense can keep the Heat offense under wraps.
So the series is going to be decided by how efficiently the Bulls can score the ball on the offensive end. Chicago is the worst offensive team of the four teams remaining in the playoffs. As consistent as the Bulls' defense has been, the offense has been just as variable. Chicago has to find ways to keep their points per possession number in the 1.06-1.10 range.
It can certainly happen. Game Two was marked by an avalanche of missed free throws and close misfires in the lane by the Bulls. Some of the credit goes to Miami contesting shots, but only some of it. As Derrick Rose summed up afterwards: "They closed down the lane, but I missed a lot of layups, shots that I normally hit." He repeated that a little bit later in his postgame interview. Rose was 7-of-23 from the field in Game Two and was one of just two Bulls to reach double figures. Chicago shot 3-of-20 from three-point range. I had mentioned that as a possibility for Game Two, however I also boldly point out that a regression in three-point shooting, if it occurred, would likely be offset by better shooting close to the basket.
Stunningly, that got even worse. Chicago shot 17-of-42 in the lane in the game. According to HoopData.com, the Bulls were 3-of-23 between 3 and 15 feet. You wouldn't think that would happen again. Compounding the close misses was the fact that the Bulls were just 16-of-26 from the foul line. Chicago left a lot of points on the floor on Wednesday, missing a golden opportunity to seize the upper hand in the series.
The Bulls simply have to shoot the ball better. Their pace has been pretty good. Rose is making solid decisions. The shot selection has been fine. They just aren't hitting shots. Kyle Korver, who shot 1-of-7 in Game Two, needs to get going. Including the playoffs, the Bulls have held opponents under the league average in points per possession in 74 of 95 games (77.9 percent), going 63-11 in those contests. That's a big reason why Chicago hasn't lost more than two straight games all season. That sets a low bar for the offense to match--average will carry the day that vast majority of the time. The Bulls are 42-7 when scoring at least 1.09 points per possession.
With Rose, a better collection of big men and a solid set of three-point shooters, it appears that the Bulls can get enough quality shots to beat the Heat. Can they make them? Right now, appears to be the deciding factor in the series.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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