The Eastern Conference will have a clear-cut top tier of 5 teams next season: the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, and New York Knicks. After that, it falls off dramatically, and teams like the Wizards, Pistons, and Bucks will be battling for the right to lose in the first round. The order of those top five (save, perhaps, Miami) will be debated and determined in the season, but it is interesting to wonder how the five will match up against each other in 2013-14. I’ll be doing this series from a Bulls perspective. Today, let’s finish this series and see how Chicago matches up against that somewhat successful team from Florida.
Other than the Dallas Mavericks, no teams have had more success against the Big-3 Miami Heat than the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers (I’m a lucky guy). The Bulls have had good regular season success against the Heat, while the Pacers have pushed Miami to the brink twice in playoff series. Since that famous offseason, the Bulls and Heat have developed a tremendous rivalry, and produced some amazing moments. There might not be anything better than two elite teams that battle at the top of the same conference, and develop a healthy dislike for each other along the way. These two teams have produced some spectacular moments the last three years, like this game-winner by Kyle Korver, this game winner by Luol Deng, this ridiculous layup by Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson nearly ending Dwyane Wade’s life, LeBron and Wade going full-on superstar mode to rally and win the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, James literally jumping over another NBA player for an alley-oop, Rose embarrassing Joel Anthony, this game-tying three by C.J. Watson, Jimmy Butler throwing it down on Chris Bosh while the short-handed Bulls ended Miami’s 27-game winning streak, and finally, these back-to-back dunks by LeBron,
Good memories. But it’s time to look ahead, because after a season in which Chicago was absent from the top of the East due to injuries, this rivalry could be back in full bloom next season. And I can. not. wait.
Now, I won’t insult your intelligence and leave my “verdict” hanging until the end of this article. Miami is the 2-time defending champion with the best player in the world playing the best basketball of his life, and a supporting cast that fits perfectly. Chicago is a top-of-the-East hopeful with many strengths but also many question marks. Miami is the better team. My point in this article is to flesh out how good a chance the Bulls have of knocking Miami off.
(I can’t even bring myself to hate on Miami like I used to. Maybe typing up this article will bring it back out of me. I need the last two NBA seasons erased from my mind, Men In Black-style.)
Point Guard: Derrick Rose vs. Mario Chalmers
This is a case of an annoying role player always seeming to get the upper-hand over a superstar. In college, Chalmers’ Kansas team beat Rose in the NCAA Championship game, with Chalmers hitting that memorable deep 3 to send the game into overtime. Since then, Chalmers has been to 3 NBA Finals and won 2 titles. MARIO CHALMERS. Rose has ascended to superstardom but been hampered by injuries and hasn’t sniffed the success Chalmers has.
(Yep, writing this article is bringing it all back.)
Chalmers is a solid player. If you’re an opposing fan, you’re guaranteed to laugh at him a few times a game when he dribbles the ball off his foot or decides to launch an ugly runner when LeBron or Wade are standing there, wide open. But in the end, he always seems to make plays to win. He hits open 3s, is a pest defensively, and has become quite good at scoring off of the pick and roll.
But, um, it’s Derrick Rose vs. Mario Chalmers.
Shooting Guard: Jimmy Butler vs. Dwyane Wade
Dwyane Wade has never really had to guard the shooting guards of the Bulls over the last 3 years, save for when Kyle Korver was on the Bulls (and even then, the Bulls would never really play Korver while Wade was on the court, because, Korver can’t guard Dwyane Wade). Other than Korver, it’s been Keith “I somehow start and make lots of money on every team” Bogans, Old Man Richard Hamilton, Ronnie “Restricted Area” Brewer, Kirk Hinrich, Marco Bellinelli, etc. etc. Now, the Bulls may finally have someone to make Wade expend energy on defense, which is doubly important as Wade is clearly aging and on the decline. Wade will have to respect Butler’s 3-point shot, opening up driving lanes for Rose, and Butler is also capable of driving to the hoop and finishing. He also has a size advantage on Wade, and is actually pretty fast, meaning he can get out on the fast break while Wade decides to whine to referees about how Butler breathed on him on offense.
Now, Wade hasn’t had Joe Johnson-levels of decline, and is still a very, very good player, provided he is healthy. We saw in Game 4 of the NBA Finals against San Antonio, that Wade is still capable of reaching that elite level once in awhile. With an offseason of rest, Wade should presumably be back closer to that level, than the level we saw often throughout the playoffs, where Wade couldn’t attack the basket, finish at the rim, and (still, after many years) couldn’t hit a jumper consistently. Wade is still the second-best player on a back-to-back NBA Champion, so I don’t want to take too much away from him. But Butler/Wade is closer than you may think.
Small Forward: Luol Deng vs. LeBron James
You know what’s weird? Whenever I see James and Deng battle each other, I always come away impressed with how well Deng plays him. He always seems to make it difficult on LeBron to get to the basket, challenges his jump shots, and seems to have moderate success scoring against LeBron.
But then I look up the stats and see that James averages his 5th-highest points per game out of all 30 teams against Chicago, at 29.2. And how, this past season, Deng averaged just 6.2 points per 36 minutes, shot just 26%, and did not make a 3 while on the court for 70 minutes at the same time as James. So yeah LeBron is goooooooooood. Looking at this player comparison, Deng didn’t experience much drop-off in his game when facing James the two years prior to last year. But maybe the wrist injury really hampered him this year, maybe the absence of Rose put too much pressure on him to score on James. Whatever the case, he was not good when matched up with James.
Another crazy thought: imagine that the best player on your favorite team (not including you, Miami “fans”) averages 24 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists a game, and shoots 48% from the field. You would be ecstatic right? He should be an All-Star, MVP candidate.
That is a sub-par game for LeBron James.
Anyways, I have always been proud of how hard Deng defends LeBron, and how well the Bulls usually do in closing off his driving lanes, despite what the stats may say. He’s just that good.
(I need to watch some Michael Jordan highlights soon. Like, now.)
Power Forward: Carlos Boozer vs. Chris Bosh.
Hahahahaha. Good matchup here. Both of these guys are common joke fodder on NBA Twitter. Bulls fans don’t really like Boozer, and no one really respects Chris Bosh. Boozer gets flak for his yelling, Bosh gets it for, well, anything.
But, one of them seems to make clutch plays in pivotal NBA Playoff games, and the other often gets benched down the stretch of games. We may give Bosh a really, really…….really hard time, but he has come up absolutely huge in many big games for Miami. They don’t miraculously win Game 6 of the Finals against the Spurs if he doesn’t grab some big offensive rebounds late, especially the one that led to Ray Allen’s 3 (I used to like you, Ray). He also blocked Danny Green’s game winning 3-point attempt right after Allen’s 3. Sure, he had 0 points in Game 7, but he already saved Miami’s bacon in Game 6, so you can’t really make fun of him for it.
(JK of course you can)
Boozer seems to get a lot of empty stats. He puts up good numbers in the regular season, and you will look at his playoff stats and say “Hmm, he was a solid performer for Chicago.”
But he just never seems to be trustworthy. He doesn’t pass the eye-test in big games. I don’t fault the guy for trying, he really does give good effort, contrary to some perception. I simply never feel confident with him taking yet another fadeaway jumper late in a game, or defending a pick-and-roll with LeBron or Wade attacking.
So, it’s a battle of two often-criticized, embattled power forwards who often put up good numbers but always seem to be the butt of some joke or another. One of them has at least come up big in some clutch moments, including NBA Finals games. I just could never see Boozer doing the same.
Advantage: HEAT (ugh)
Center: Joakim Noah vs. Udonis Haslem
Yea, on the lineup sheet, Haslem would probably be listed at Power Forward, with Bosh actually being here at Center. But it was more fun to compare Bosh and Boozer. Plus, Miami plays so much small-ball that these frontcourt matchups fluctuate wildly and often.
Haslem is a Miami fan favorite who has been there for years and always puts in a couple of big performances in intense playoff series. He can disappear completely, due to the Big 3, but then he will pop back and have a game like Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers, where he made that same baseline jump shot 53847589435 times in one night. He’s sort of like a very, very rich man’s Jeff Foster. Smart, veteran, and has a couple of skills you can always bank on.
Noah, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of my favorite players. Normally, he has a major speed and athleticism advantage over the opposing center. That advantage is often negated, though, when facing Bosh or Haslem. He’s still a little bigger than those two though. If he can keep making his ugly jump shot from about 15 feet, it will do absolute wonders to help Derrick Rose’s spacing when he has to face that blitzkrieg Miami defense.
You see, Noah often becomes the most important player in the Bulls’ offense when facing Miami, for a couple of reasons. Both reasons have to do with his passing ability, which I’ve mentioned here previously (YouTube “Joakim Noah passing” for some pretty nice highlights). The first reason for Noah’s importance is the way that Miami defends the pick-and-roll.
Miami does not have a giant rim protector, like Roy Hibbert or Omer Asik, that can just sit back and protect the rim. They have to prevent the ball from getting to the rim at all. Miami’s bigs are smaller but fast. Thus, their big men typically jump out and aggressively trap the ballhandler.
So Rose will have the ball, and Noah will come set a screen. Chalmers will follow Rose over the screen, and stay with him. Haslem/Bosh will then aggressively double-team Rose, leaving Noah open. In this situation, the simple and correct thing for Rose to do is to quickly lay the ball off to Noah, rather than trying to dribble around or through two defenders. Now most centers, after catching the ball about 15 or 20 feet from the rim, will look to hot-potato the ball away very quickly. This would play into Miami’s plan, as the center would not attack, despite being open, and their defensive players could all recover back to their men.
Noah’s skill set, with his dribbling and passing, allows him to defeat Miami’s strategy. Noah can take the ball to the rim and finish if no help comes. If another defender rotates, he is extremely capable of firing accurate passes to the corner for an open 3, or to his fellow big-man in the paint for an easy layup. The important thing is that Noah can make these decisions and execute them quickly, before Miami’s defense rotates. Miami plays every pick and roll like this, so having a capable counter to their defense is a tremendous advantage.
The second reason Noah is so important is that he can pick out cutters and open teammates with his passing, without making Rose dribble the ball around for 20 seconds and exhaust himself. It’s huge that the Bulls can create some offense without relying 100% on their superstar.
Bench: Taj Gibson/Kirk Hinrich/Mike Dunleavy/Tony Snell vs. Norris Cole/Shane Battier/Ray Allen/Chris Anderson/Greg Oden
Miami’s bench is useless as an independent unit. It’s how each one of those bench players compliments the Big 3 that makes them such a deep team. Each player, save for Oden, contributed in major ways at one point or another during Miami’s title defense. Cole tore up the Bulls, Battier tore up the Spurs, Anderson tore up the Pacers, and Allen saved the season. All of them play off of LeBron and Wade perfectly.
This used to be one huge advantage Chicago had over Miami. The likes of Omer Asik, Gibson, Korver/Brewer, and C.J. Watson were a fan-tastic bench unit, and they would basically always outplay Miami’s bench. They were the main reason for many of Chicago’s regular season wins over Miami. But no longer, as Hinrich is not Watson, and Dunleavy and Snell are old and unproven, respectively.
Coaching: Tom Thibodeau vs. Erik Spoelstra
I’m going to catch flak no matter who I choose here. If I choose Thibodeau, Miami people will yell TWO RINGSSSSSS. If I choose Spoelstra, Chicago people will yell about how Spoelstra has ridden the coat-tails of the best player in the world and two other superstars, and how Thibodeau has kept Chicago competitive while half the team is often in the hospital.
And both sides have valid points. Spoelstra has done an absolutely magnificent job in shaping a Miami offense that in 2011 was just isolation and pick and rolls. Now, Miami is virtually guaranteed to get a good shot off of an inbounds play, and they have some sets and offensive actions that are simply impossible to defend. When Ray Allen sets a screen for LeBron then pops out to the 3-point line, what do you do? Do you stick to Allen, the all-time leading 3-point shooter, and give LeBron a driving lane? Do you stick on LeBron and leave Allen open? What about when LeBron runs a fast pick and roll on the side of the floor, with Chris Bosh?
On the other side of the ball, Miami can be as aggressive and intense defensively as any team in the NBA. That is a direct credit to Spoelstra, who has devised a scheme that takes advantage of Miami’s insane team speed and often turns them into an overwhelming defensive team. He gets all of his players to play hard defensively, all of the time.
Thibodeau perhaps coaxes more out of his players than any other coach in the NBA. That itself is a standard definition we hear of great coaches, “getting the most out of his players.” He has also devised good offensive schemes, he just hasn’t had the shooters needed to shoot or the finishers needed to finish. Or he hasn’t had Derrick Rose. Defensively, Thibodeau’s genius is well known by anyone who follows the NBA. You could give Thibs Orlando’s roster and he could probably get good defense out of them.
So I’m genuinely, 100%, not copping out here. It’s simply too close for me to call.
There is a path to this being the season that Chicago finally knocks off Miami. Rose returns, and is as good as the Rose we knew. Butler improves and gives the Bulls a legitimate backcourt partner for Rose to pair with. The Bulls stay healthy, and Thibodeau’s whirring offensive system of passes and player movement, combined with Rose’s brilliance, finally gives Chicago a potent offense to break Miami’s suffocating defense. Chicago’s defense stays as stingy as ever, with Butler and Deng locking up the wings, and Noah continuing his madman defensive energy (and covering up for Boozer). On the other side, Wade and Bosh continue to decline and simply aren’t as explosive as before, putting too much pressure on LeBron to do it himself in an exhausting, torturous quest for a 3-peat. LeBron’s game falls off ever so slightly from last year (can he possibly be that good AGAIN?), and the Bulls are left holding the Eastern Conference Finals trophy, back at the top of the East 4 years after they reemerged there.
Sounds like a pretty good fairytale.