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Hardwood Canvas » 2011 NBA Playoffs, Feature Stories » The Bulls are not favored to beat the Heat, but they should be

The Bulls are not favored to beat the Heat, but they should be

Hello World!

The Chicago Bulls are not heavily favored to beat LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat in this epic 2011 NBA Eastern Conference Finals’ showdown, but based on their consistent, team-oriented style of play on both ends throughout the season, maybe they should be.

That didn’t stop Vegas from, ultimately, favoring the Heat 2-to-1 over the Bulls in the East Finals and 13 out of 16 esteemed and, for the most part, well-respected ESPN experts to pick Miami to oust Chicago in this highly-anticipated 7-game Eastern Conference finale.

And on the surface who can blame them?

It’s pretty hard to ignore Chicago’s suspect and seemingly over-reliant use of MVP Derrick Rose on offense and their obvious lack of postseason experience, however the Bulls didn’t win an NBA-best 62 games during the regular season marshaling their way through two physical rounds of NBA Playoffs basketball on the merits of Rose’s offense alone.

For the Bulls, defense has been their calling card from Day 1 under the focused Tom Thibodeau regime and it is that same said defense that will, ultimately, lead them to the NBA Finals if they are so fortunate to beat Miami four out of seven tries during the next couple weeks.

Vegas is for gamblers, but the NBA, albeit this season’s rendition of NBA Playoffs predictability has gone  right out the window, is historically much more of a sure thing as the end of the year draws closer.

What do I mean by that?

Teams basis for success and their deficiencies in loss ring much louder during the close of the final bell.

In terms of the Heat and Bulls they both exhibit sufficient reasons to believe they will advance while simultaneously displaying an equal amount of red flags that would indicate otherwise.

We have no way of knowing who will actually come out on top in this head-to-head matchup between Chicago and Miami, but we do know what these two teams do well and that information is key in determining which stated franchise has a better chance, this season, of advancing to the NBA Finals.

For Chicago, based solely on numbers their proficiency in many key areas generally associated with winning NBA basketball games points us to believe that they have the upper hand despite the heavy favoritism that  collectively points Miami’s way.

Unfortunately, the basis of Miami’s overwhelming pull of collective influence over the NBA universe is up for debate, but beating the Celtics so handily in five quick games probably has a great amount to do with that.

So let us count the reasons why Chicago should be the team that’s favored to beat Miami and how they can make that a reality in this 7-game series.

Team Defense

This isn’t the injury-riddled Boston Celtics the Miami Heat are having to go up against.

Chicago currently ranks second (Orlando Magic 1st at 86.8 pts/g) in these 2011 NBA Playoffs giving up an average of just 87.7 points per game and comes in second only to the Mavericks in point differential at +7.2.

For all the so-called “difficulties” they had against Atlanta they ended up ousting the Hawks in six games winning by an average of 15.5 points per game.

But it’s more than just the numbers, this version of Bulls is the embodiment of team defense.  If you watch them closely on each defensive possession you will notice that all 5 players eyes are directly affixed to the ball.

They wisely push offensive drivers towards the baseline area where they can trap and force, not only a difficult shot or pass out, but the stated offensive player out of the play entirely when they head back down the court.

But where the Bulls may be most impressive is at holding teams to just one shot.

Unlike the Celtics who got destroyed by the Heat on the boards giving up almost 10 offensive rebounds per contest while getting outrebounded 40.4 to 34.8 per game, Chicago enters the Eastern Conference Finals ranked second averaging 43.9 boards per game and number one in rebounding difference at +6.9.

Meaning they understand fully that a defensive possession is not over until you secure the ball or rebound.

The Bulls will rebound the ball, so the Miami Heat will have to wisely get quality shots in their offense as unfortunately they won’t get near the amount of second chance opportunities the Celtics gave up.

Bench Production

We have talked ad nauseum on the offensive exploits of Wade and James who have just been spectacular all season long and throughout the 2011 NBA Playoffs for this Heat team.

Well this just in…it’ll be more of the same as the Bulls won’t be able to stop the Heat dynamic duo either.

But that is exactly what Chicago wants.

They are not foolish enough to think they can stop Wade and James who have averaged an amazing 52.3 points combined during the playoffs and an even more incredible 56.5 points per game against Chicago during the regular season.

Head Coach Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls’ coaching staff knows their ultimate success will come down to limiting “the other guys” – the Heat second unit or bench.

As much you will hear or folks will tell you that the regular season means nothing in this series, when it comes to bench points that argument rings hollow.

In 3 regular season contests the Heat bench has put in 15.7 points per game to Chicago’s 21.7 average.

Although that 6-point difference is not necessarily monumental, when one considers that these Eastern Conference giants have been separated by a total of only 8 points in three games this year; that number gains increasingly more significance as their showdown looms closer.

An even more glaring note about the above-mentioned bench numbers is that in Game 1 Miami was without the services of one LeBron James, which pushed second-unit staple James Jones into a starting role giving Eddie House and Mario Chalmers more shots off the bench.

Miami had to get its points from somewhere and they did magnificently getting a total of 39 points from the second unit in their 99-96 loss with James out.

If you take out that game – which did not feature James, the best overall player in our beloved NBA today – the Miami Heat have averaged a lowly 4 points from their bench in the final two contests against the Bulls.

On the contrary, Chicago has gotten impressively consistent production from their second unit all season long playing a key role in the Bulls’ regular season 3-0 record against the Heat.

Bulls’ three-point marksmen Kyle Korver averaged 5.7 points and 1.3 steals per game on just 33.3% shooting from the field and 28.6% from deep against the Heat during the NBA regular campaign.

Defensive-minded swingman Ronnie Brewer put in 6.3 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game on 57.1% shooting from the field.

And of course if you’re Miami you have to be concerned with the Bulls’ active second unit frontline in 7-foot center Omer Asik, whose averaged 1.3 points and 6.0 rebounds in 3 games versus the Heat, and second-year  power forward Taj Gibson who put in 5.0 points and 2.3 rebounds in 16 minutes per game.

The big question for the Heat will ultimately be just who off their already shallow bench will come to play against a defense in the Bulls that isn’t set up to stop the opponent’s primary offensive weapons, but more gauged to limit the so-called “other guys”.

So for Mario Chalmers, who has averaged an impressive 11.0 points, 4.0 assists and 2.0 steals on 52.2% shooting from the field in 33 minutes of action against the Bulls during the regular season, James Jones, who put in just 3.3 points per game on 30% shooting, and the rest of the Heat second-unit guys the time is now to break out against this stingy Chicago defense who has dominated them all season long.

Whichever teams’ bench comes to play in the series will go a long way in, ultimately, determining the winner.

Homecourt Advantage

It is what it is.  Homecourt advantage doesn’t necessarily ensure anything in the playoffs, but it definitely doesn’t hurt matters.

The Bulls worked extremely hard to snatch up that #1 seed in the East and their impressive charge at the end of the 82-game regular season may be what ends up being the difference in the series.

Chicago ended the year tied with the San Antonio Spurs for the best home record at 36-5 and have proven downright stingy from the comfy confines of the United Center throughout.

Unfortunately talk of homecourt doesn’t mean anything if you don’t take advantage of, dare we say, the advantage.

The Bulls know this first hand after losing Game 1 in the Eastern Conference Semis to the Atlanta Hawks 103-95 behind Joe Johnson‘s impressive 34-point outburst on 12-of-18 shooting from the field and 5-of-5 from three-point range.

However even with that loss they are a confident 6-1 during these playoffs playing in front of one of the more raucous crowds we have in the NBA today.

Whether you personally believe homecourt means anything or not in the playoffs, the fact remains that grabbing it instantly gives a team an obvious advantage in getting the chance to close things out in front of their home crowd if the series were to go seven games.

With that being said, the obvious edge lies in Chicago’s favor because they do hold homecourt advantage against the Heat in this series, but they will have to do their utmost to protect it if they hope to advance all the way to the NBA Finals.

Summary

The chances of the East Finals going 6 or 7 games is highly probable.

However, while the general consensus around the league has the Heat moving on, one could argue that it is the Bulls that have the better advantage overall.

The MVP, Coach of the Year, homecourt advantage, an undefeated 3-0 record against the Heat during the regular season, rebounding advantage, bench advantage and an improbable drive that has pushed them to a 21-game improvement in the win column this season just to name a few advantages.

In terms of Miami there is no doubt that they have drastically improved as the season has moved along and they are a different and much more formidable group now.

They’ve grown more confident.  They’ve become more cohesive as a unit.  They’ve silenced the majority of their most rampant and insistent critics with solid unselfish play on both the defensive and offensive ends.

But, that very same thing could be said for this 2010-11 version of Chicago Bulls.

How quickly we forget that they were, for the most part, also assembled just prior to the 2010-11 NBA campaign as well needing a good portion of the year to get comfortable with one another amidst the injuries to key members and relative unfamiliarity with new faces.

Boozer coming in during the off-season.  Korver, Brewer, C.J. Watson, Keith Bogans along with Head Coach Tom Thibodeau and an entirely new coaching staff all coming in before the start of the season.

In fact, for all the talk of Miami’s late cohesion what is many times overlooked around the league is just how commanding the Bulls were down the stretch displaying an audacious desire to win as indicated by their grasping of the league’s best-overall record and the improbable MVP accomplishment of one Derrick Rose.

The Bulls gained momentum after appearing somewhat mediocre to start the season going 9-8; a very similar situation to the more publicized Miami Heat who had the exact same mark before they went on their impressive closing three-quarter season run.

The Bulls would go on to finish with a remarkable 53-12 record the rest of the way grabbing that all-important homecourt advantage through the entire 2011 NBA Playoffs.

Now they get their toughest challenge yet with the imposing Miami Heat coming to town.

But based on the constant challenges this confident Bulls’ squad has triumphed all season long, beating the Heat should be just another step in their quest for the franchise’s first title since the 1997-98 season.

And they have all the pieces in place to successfully take that step…favored or not.

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