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May 24, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Heat is on the Bulls

by Bradford Doolittle

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at Miami 96, Chicago 85 (Miami leads series 2-1)
Pace: 82.1
Offensive Ratings: Miami 117.0, Chicago 103.6

Just over a week ago, the city of Chicago was frolicking in euphoria over the Bulls' rout of the hated Miami Heat in Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals. Now, two games later, you get the sense that Bulls are being written off. Two games, both of which Chicago was in position to win in the fourth quarter, are enough to change everyone's mind. It seems that some perspective is needed. As far as I can tell, the Bulls have just two problems to solve: offense and defense.

The Heat has clearly made adjustments since that first game, such as better ball movement and more creative pressure on Derrick Rose. The Bulls really have not changed much, if at all. The steadfast approach comes from Tom Thibodeau, who all year has preached about the importance of doing things the same way, approaching games in a consistent manner and developing the proper habits for winning basketball. What happens when the bad habits spring forth? The Bulls can't beat Miami playing the same way they did in the last two games. It's up to Thibodeau to figure out what adjustments to make.

In browsing some of the reactions to Game Two, I was struck by how consistently the Bulls' offense was lampooned. This is understandable--1.04 points per possession is not enough to beat a team with Miami's firepower. Not as much was made about the defense, which seems stunning when you consider that Chicago gave up 1.17 points per trip. The Bulls have allowed a figure that high in just 10 of 96 outings this season. The two ends of the floor are to a certain extent interrelated. Without question, Chicago's shoddy offense fed into the poor defense. Nevertheless, in Thibodeau parlance, the Bulls' defense has some things to clean up.

Chicago was brutalized by Chris Bosh in the second game, to the tune of 34 points on 13-of-18 shooting. For the series, has used 24.7 percent of Miami's possessions during the 40.6 minutes per game he's been on the floor, a usage rate a bit higher than his regular season mark of 23.8 percent. He's using those possessions well, with a stunning True Shooting Percentage of .713. Bosh is averaging 24.7 points in the series, more than LeBron James, more than Dwyane Wade. If this continues, Chicago is sunk.

Here is a log of Bosh's 13 made field goals in Game Two:

1. Omer Asik came off Bosh to help on a penetrating James,
who laid the ball off to Bosh for a dunk.
2. A face-up jumper off a post-up against Asik.
3. A foul line jumper after Asik sagged towards the middle.
4. Off a pick-and-roll, Asik lost him, Bosh took the pass out top,
head faked, and drove to the basket against Asik, who flew out to close.
No help.
5. An 18-foot face-up jumper against a slow-to-close Joakim Noah.
6. Curled around a corner screen set by Mike Bibby and scored on a layup.
No backside help.
7. A 20-foot face-up jumper from the elbow off a ball rotation to the weak
side. Noah was caught defending 1-on-2 and elected to take Joel Anthony
under the basket.
8. A 20-foot face-up jumper. Noah simply didn't contest the shot.
9. A 15-foot, jab step jumper from the corner. Noah was all over him,
but Bosh was feeling it and hit a fadeaway.
10. A right-handed runner after Bosh moved to the high post, reacting to
Noah's decision to sag to the middle when James received the ball in
the corner.
11. A 17-foot, jab step jumper over Noah. Solid defense, though he
could have overplayed Bosh's left hand a little bit more.
12. A simple pick-and-roll in two-man game with Wade. Started with
Bosh receiving ball out top, hand off to Wade, brushing Wade's defender
and rolling to the basket. Bosh took pass from Wade and scored. No
recovery on screen by Noah, no weak side help.
13. Same play as No. 12, only this time Carlos Boozer rotated over to help.
Instead of playing solid position defense, Boozer elected to lunge for a steal,
a nasty habit of his. Bosh spun away to his right and went in for a two-hand flush.

Time and again, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra used Bosh as the antidote for the Bulls' philosophy of overcrowding to the ball side. But wasn't any one play. The Bulls have had trouble with face-up big men all season, a list which has included Andrea Bargnani, Spencer Hawes, Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge. Bosh had a nightmarish 1-of-18 performance in Chicago earlier this season, but that was obviously an aberration. If you're keeping tabs, those first four field goals for Bosh came with Asik guarding him; the last nine came against Noah. Since Asik was only on the floor for those four early baskets because Noah got in quick foul trouble, you could lay the entirety of the onslaught at the feet of Noah. It's more complicated than that, because the second- and third- efforts that Thibodeau talks about so often were missing. But Noah had a terrible defensive game, and Bosh had a great shooting night. It's really almost as simple as that.

Noah has a .321 True Shooting Percentage in the series. He grabbed just five rebounds in Game Three and scored only one point in 29 minutes. Given his defensive struggles, if Noah isn't more effective early in Game Four, we may see a lot more of Taj Gibson, who played just 12:21 on Sunday, but is scoring 19.8 points per 40 minutes in the series. Gibson may be the best candidate to corral the rampaging Bosh and, goodness knows, the Bulls need the offense. It's sounding like Asik won't be available for Game Four because of some leg problems, so Gibson is going to get more run one way or another. So will Kurt Thomas, who has yet to play in the series, but would give the Bulls another jump shooting option on the pick-and-pop.

Even if the Bulls are able to plug up the defensive holes that have sprung up, they simply have to score more points. Boozer had a resurgent night, with 26 points and 17 rebounds, but shot just 8-of-19 from the floor. He was the primary beneficiary of Miami's trapping tactics on Rose and gave the Bulls some much-needed production. They need better efficiency to go along with that. It's not just Boozer, but the Bulls have got to convert more shots in the lane. So far, the Bulls have shot 19-of-42, 17-of-42 and 18-of-46 in the paint, respectively, in the series' first three games. That 41.5 percent success rate close to the basket in killing Chicago.

Rose has pledged to be more aggressive in Game Four, which means he will be less likely to give the ball up early when the Heat come at him with the trap. Thibodeau needs to call less pick-and-roll--Chicago is scoring just .86 points per play on those sets in the first three games. Because Miami has been so intent on blitzing Rose, those high pick-and-rolls with non-shooting big men play right into the Heat's hands. If the Bulls are really going to pin their offensive hopes on a return to mega-production by Rose, I'd like to see more 1-4 sets, with Rose out top and the other four Bulls spread along the baseline. Instead of the off-ball action developing early, give Rose room to operate and then react to what he creates.

Thibodeau also needs to steal some more court time for Kyle Korver. Korver is shooting 25 percent from the field in the series, but the Bulls have to get him going. One option is to run more two-man basketball with Korver setting a side-screen for Rose. On those plays, Miami can switch on the pick or fight through it, either of which gives Rose the upper hand. The Heat can continue to trap Rose, which frees up Korver's normally-deadly shot. If I'm Thibodeau, every second that Wade and James are not on the floor together, I'm responding with Korver and Rose, and I try to steal as many possessions as I can in that configuration, even when the dynamic duo is on the floor. The numbers have shown it all season--no matter what his shortcomings, the Bulls have been a better team on this season with Korver on the court.

In the series, the Bulls' bench has predictably outplayed their Miami counterparts, leading to some nice plus-minus figures for Gibson, Asik, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson. We haven't seen much of Watson, who has averaged just 8.4 minutes against the Heat. Brewer may be Thibodeau's best option against Wade and he certainly provides more scoring punch than starter Keith Bogans. However, Thibodeau might be able to pair Watson and Rose together from time to time, allowing Rose to guard Wade and apply some ball pressure. You don't want Rose to get in foul trouble, but this might be another way to get more offense in snippets, especially when Boozer is on the bench and you have two quality defensive big men in the game.

As for the Heat, it just needs to keep doing what it's doing. Wade and James learned from the Game One defeat, and now seem intent on letting the game come to them and running Spoelstra's offense. James was a maestro in Game Two, initiating the attack almost every time down the court and handing out 10 assists, all without committing a single turnover. If Miami continues this tack, Thibodeau might want to try someone like Rose or Brewer on James in snippets, just to get a little ball pressure going, something which is missing when you force Luol Deng to come out on the floor. He's a great defensive forward, but that is not his strength. You can't go small against James for long, but anything to disrupt the rhythm he's got going can only help.

It's do or die for the Bulls in Game Four. The team that hasn't lost three in a row all season has everything riding on its ability to keep that streak alive. If it happens the remarkably consistent Thibodeau has to show some creativity and flexibility. The Heat have gotten better with each passing game. If Thibodeau doesn't put Miami back on the defensive, the Bulls will find themselves in a hole they can't climb out of.

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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