As the basketball world shakes off the abrupt and unforeseen truncated playoff runs of the league’s old guard (Boston, Los Angeles, San Antonio), we are simultaneously presented with a mouthwatering clash for the ages. The face-off between the dastardly Miami Heat and the humble,well-liked Chicago Bulls is representative of the rapid ascension of youth (and relative inexperience) into the NBA’s elite. It is also a microcosm of the — swift and staggering, but ultimately unsurprising — paradigm shift in power from the incumbent veteran stewardship to the unheralded promise of potential. To borrow a well-worned cliché: the changing of the guard.
Much like how the torch of tennis immortality was (then unknowingly) passed from Sampras to Federer in that enthralling five-set clash at Wimbledon, the same has happened in today’s NBA landscape. However, that is not to say the veteran-laden squads of the Celtics, Lakers and Spurs — winners of the past four NBA championships — are over the hill or incapable of mounting another challenge next year, because I believe they can. But today (and this article) belongs to the young and the restless.
Yahoo! Sports’ fantastic Ball Don’t Lie crew brilliantly laid down the groundwork for what is sure to be a highly entertaining affair. Same praise goes out to the omnipresent Zach Lowe of The Point Forward, who breaks down the series meticulously with astute observations of individual matchups and statistical breakdowns from the teams’ regular season head-to-head.
(As a side note: Isn’t it incredible how Zach Lowe consistently churns out beautifully crafted pieces and seems to almost never skip a beat? Henry Abbott called him the Blake Griffin of NBA bloggers but I beg to differ. He’s more of a Kevin Love: consistently wonderful production at a pace that exceeds his peers. The certainty of obtaining a few nuggets of wisdom in each article as akin to the quasi-inevitability of a Kevin Love double-double. Also, he somehow really reminds me of a clockwork orange.)
A couple of takeaways: Most believe the series is hyper-competitive and could go either way. There is a general consensus that Chicago’s dominant defence can stifle the likes of Wade and James. Finally, the greatest — and arguably the most pivotal — enigma of the series is this: How is Miami going to stop Derrick Rose?
Dissecting The Indecipherable:
Look how far we’ve come in a year. In a series that features LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, the one player widely regarded as the most unstoppable is one Derrick Rose. The man has really grown leaps and bounds this season, even if his efficiency and shot selection (too many threes) still leaves something to be desired. How the Heat are going to approach guarding Derrick Rose is a question that should be followed by another: Who is going to be Rose’s primary defender?
Along with the first bullet above, here are the four talking points of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Who is going to be Rose’s primary defender?
Although Dwayne Wade plays the ‘2’ for Miami, it would not be far-fetched to think that he’d be their de facto ‘1’ guard on defence. Mike Bibby’s defensive contributions to the Heat is similar to Brian Scalabrine’s entire season’s worth of production for the Bulls — it is practically non-existent. In fact, he has been downright horrific on offense as well, posting an ungodly 1.1 PER throughout the post season. The worst part is that he is still their starting point guard. If Bibby is to start (and chances are, he will), look for Spoelstra to call Wade’s number for this defensive assignment, especially if Bibby is obliterated from the get-go.
However, after watching Spoelstra tweak and adjust his lineups to suit matchups, I would not be surprised if he went with Chalmers to start. But he is probably too comfortable with his bench rotation to risk messing up their chemistry.
All roads lead to Wade being Rose’s primary defender, especially in crunch time when the ball is almost always in the hands of the MVP.
What defensive adjustments, if any, are Spoelstra going to make?
The Wade-James-Bosh triumvirate annihilated their respective counterparts in the second round. But their offensive exploits aren’t the reason why the Celtics couldn’t muster up points in crucial periods; it was their vaunted defense.
With regard to Derrick Rose, the Heat’s handling of the pick-and-roll will probably be the most scrutinized aspect of their defense. The Anthony-Bosh big man tandem is arguably the best in the business of hedging and recovering. But in Rose you have the best point guard at attacking off the initial hedge and causing all sorts of havoc.
Will Spoelstra ask Rose’s defender to go under the screen and bait him into shooting jumpers? That is most teams’ default tactic against a lethal ballhandling slasher with a less-than-dependable jump shot. But D-Rose is a respectable midrange shooter, and ideally you’d want to concede space but still be able to semi-contest his jumper. Factor in Rose’s otherworldly quickness and any advantage gained from ‘sagging off’ may be futile. Hence, it is very likely Spoelstra may put the bigger 6’4″ Wade on Rose as Wade’s wingspan and lateral quickness renders him the best option to contain Rose.
If Spoelstra elects to chase Rose over screens, however, then a premium will be placed on the other four guys to step in and form a ‘wall’ to limit Rose’s penetration. On side pick-and-rolls, Spoelstra may also opt to aggressively trap Rose and force him to give up the rock. If he concedes and gives it up along the perimeter, great. But if he finds the open big man, or worse, splits the trap, then Miami will be in dire straits.
How the Heat’s big men communicate on who’s to pick up Rose and the rolling/popping big will be absolutely crucial. As Anthony Macri has outlined here, Rose has been experimenting with a ‘probing’ dribble, where he actively surveys the entire court instead of driving to the cup recklessly. Though the results have not been eye-popping, Miami will do good to pay extra attention to the Bulls’ active big men and the always-cutting Deng.
Also, if Carlos Boozer’s last game represents a return to form rather than a one-game aberration, Miami will have another potential dilemma to deal with.
Sans Derrick Rose, will Bulls’ offense be enough?
The Chicago Bulls’ offense is Derrick Rose; Derrick Rose is the Chicago Bulls’ offense. He shoots, passes, handles the ball, breaks down defenses, makes plays and inspires awe all by himself (or with the help of a simple screen). No one individual from either team has quite the responsibility that the MVP has for his team. But, in Miami, he faces his toughest test and on the rare occasion(s) that he were to fail, who’s going to keep the offense afloat?
Boozer has been struggling with a turf toe, but for the Bulls to win, he has to shoot better and provide his team with a post presence they sorely lack when he’s not aggressive.
The Bulls’ defensive rating plummets with Korver on the court, but the offensive boost he provides — due to lethal shooting and hence, better spacing — offsets his defensive shortcomings. Though his abysmal defensive reputation is debatable, his only valid contribution will undoubtedly be on the offensive end. He has to make shots off curls, spot-ups and drive-and-kicks by his teammates. It wouldn’t hurt if Wade leaves him open in the corner either. Korver came up big against the Hawks, and his timely shooting will be essential to the Bulls’ late-game lineups.
Chicago is a poor shooting team (and they are slightly worse in the playoffs); that is a well-known fact. They’re going to shoot and miss quite often, which plays to their greatest strength: offensive rebounding. Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik (I just love this guy. His name, height, build, game. Everything.) are big, strong bodies who don’t just rely on their physical assets. They actively contest every missed shot, jostle for better position and display exemplary effort in rebounding their teammates’ (and their own) misses. Their efforts are evident as they lead the league in offensive rebounding this post-season. If they can bully Miami’s smaller ‘bigs’ with their imposing size, their offense would have a greater margin for error.
(As a side note: There’s a chicken-and-egg thing going on with Chicago’s offensive rebounding. Are they a great team at getting second chances in spite of their poor shooting, or is their poor shooting presenting them with more available opportunities per possession and hence inflating their rebounding prowess? Considering the massive size and ability of the Bulls’ frontline, I’d like to think the former is more true.)
Deng is the Bulls’ most underrated and overlooked player (I very nearly forgot to mention him here). But make no mistake, he is their go-to scorer behind Rose. As all five guys will be keeping an eye on Rose’s every move, Deng has to exploit the smallest of lapses in concentration to lose his marker and cut into open space for easy opportunities. LeBron is also known to have trouble with quick, savvy small forwards — Batum, Wallace, Deng — who know how to move off the ball. Thus Deng will have to step up and pile on the points to relieve some pressure off his point guard. I’d peg him to average around 17 points per game for a successful series.
Korver, Boozer, Deng and the entire Bulls frontline contributions will be crucial portion of their offense, especially when the ball is out of Rose’s hands. Whether they will pick up the slack is entirely up to them.
What to make of Miami’s wonky lineups?
Over at the Heat Index, Kevin Arnovitz opines that Miami’s best lineup comprises of the trio along with Joel Anthony and James Jones. He explains the kinks of this lineup as follows:
With this group on the floor, the Heat don’t have to compromise very much. They’re able to maximize Jones and Anthony while limiting these role players’ liabilities, thanks in large part to James and Wade.
By pairing Anthony with Jones, the Heat’s best floor spacer, Spoelstra is able to compensate for the defense’s inattention to Anthony. Since Boston, like Chicago, likes to crowd the strong side and bring a third body (often Anthony’s man) into the potential path of the attacker, whether it’s James or Wade.
He backs it up with an astounding statistic that shows this lineup outscoring their opposition by 30 points per 100 possessions. The lack of a point guard is also not an issue here as majority of the sets run with this lineup requires the other perimeter player to stand and wait for kick-outs. Seriously, go check it out.
I’ve nothing much to add to this, as the logic is sound and statistics assuring. I’d just like to point out that not only is this lineup unconventional, but Erik Spoelstra’s constant experimentation in the playoffs is an exception to the rule.
Most coaches establish a firm 8-9 man playoff rotation that they would rarely mess with, lest disrupting chemistry and the like. Unless their hand is forced — Phil with the Artest suspension, Doc with Shaq’s ultimately pointless return, Pop because RJ flat-out sucked — coaches seldom change their rotation, let alone their starting lineups. And when they do so, it reeks of desperation and is often a precursor to elimination.
But the Heat are uniquely and miraculously special (wink, wink Lost fans). The oft-discussed positional revolution is no more salient than in the Heat’s center-and-point-guard-deficient lineups. The versatility of their three superstars allows Coach Spo to continually tweak lineups and rotations to achieve the perfect balance of offense and defense. “Old-school” coaches like Popovich and Sloan would balk at the prospect of such frequent revisions; even new coaches would be wary. But none have the luxury Spoelstra has, and that freedom simply demands sustained experimentation. Perhaps now, Spoelstra has found his most lethal combination (for this year, at least).
A cagey affair. Both defenses stifle the opposition’s offenses. Wade and LeBron collectively outplay Rose. Brian Scalabrine makes a cameo (kidding!). Heat expose Bulls’ greatest flaw: over-reliance on Derrick Rose. Heat win in seven.