Friday, May 13, 2011

ECF Preview (or, Rambling Bulls' Love and Heat Hate)

Well, since the Bulls finished off the Hawks Thursday (and maybe even since we won game 5), I've been thinking about this Bulls/Heat series. I hadn't been nervous or anxious for either of the first two rounds. Even when we faced a critical game 5 against the Hawks, I wasn't worried. I just felt/knew that we would win, and we did. But since then, a familiar feeling has returned ... anxiousness that can only come from an NBA playoff series against a team that you HATE.

I knew this feeling recently back in April and May of 2009, when the Bulls went 7 games against the modern-NBA's first "Big 3", the Boston Celtics. The archives here at BBS prove how much I hated that team (and how much the series meant to me) as it was the busiest 2 months ever (118 posts over a two-month stretch).

I wrote a few coherent thoughts and mostly spewed hate-filled venom for the same reasons I am compelled to write this preview despite how little I have been writing in this space lately. I am compelled to write because I love the Bulls and, perhaps just as much, because I HATE the Heat. Sports hate is a wonderful thing, as it gives us an "enemy" - our own creation that we can build up and then hopefully destroy in a great triumph. And that's what these Miami Heat represent, this team that we hate and want nothing more than for our Bulls to knock out of the playoffs and "prove" that what they did (and how they did it) was wrong.

But can the Bulls actually knock off the Heat in a 7-game series?! I honestly don't know, but here are some rambling thoughts (hopes?) on why we might be able to pull it off.

When I started thinking about this series, my basketball brain said "Heat in 6", while my heart desperately hoped for Bulls in 7. First, here's why I think the Heat could win in 6:

I'm not sure I can say this enough: I HATE the Heat ... hate hate HATE! But if we try to remove all bias and hate, this is an NBA team with Dwyane Wade AND Lebron James. That's a pretty great tandem by any measure. (Any measure outside of Chicago, where they don't really stack up against MJ and Pip - but that's another issue for another time). In reality, these are 2 of the best players in the A, and they are playing on the same team! Regardless of any of the other players, that is already a formidable opponent.

Now imagine Chris Bosh made 3/4 of his current salary. He's no longer a max-contract guy, but instead makes about $10.8 million this season (or about $.5 million less than Deng). If that were the case (and if he weren't on the Heat), we'd all be saying that he's the best 3rd banana in the league! He put up 18ppg and 8rpg as the 3rd wheel this season ... so what really sucks about him is his contract/salary, not what he does on the court.

OK, enough of that why-the-Heat-are-actually-good nonsense, allow me to rant quickly on why I hate the Heat ...

Early in his career, I respected (and even enjoyed) Lebron's game. But a discussion with 2 friends a few years back changed my opinion. Like many others, I had been ignoring the selfish and ego-maniacal acts off the court and focusing only on his game on the court. But thanks to that conversation about 4 years ago, I saw the light - I realized how much I hated Lebron. Talented, yes. Enjoyable, or even likable, NO. So I hated Lebron before the decision last summer, and it was even easier for me to hate him (and the Heat) after. I was even proud of Bulls organization when we "failed" to sign that punk.

In the present, everyone hates Lebron and the Heat for how they were assembled, which will make this series even more fun. On my end? I hate every little thing about Lebron ... the Heat just beat the Celtics and celebrated like they won a title. There is this ridiculous Lebron "overcame the obstacle" storyline, as though he FINALLY managed to overcome the Celtics the way MJ and Pip finally beat the Pistons. Two thoughts: (1) If i tried to climb a wall, but couldn't get to the top, and then walked around the wall to the other side ... you wouldnt say i overcame an obstacle - you'd say i took the easy way out. (2) Lebron says "As much as I loved my teammates back in Cleveland" - which is basically like starting a sentence with the words "With all due respect", it means you're going to disrespect the person you're addressing. "I knew I couldn’t do it by myself against that team." So basically, those guys were so bad that Lebron was playing 1-against-5 last year. He didn't go to Miami just to get MORE help, he went to Miami to get ANY help at all because those players were nothing! He was playing alone! 1-against-5! ... But he started the sentence saying I LOVED my old teammates! What an egotistical fucking prick.

I've spent the last few days reading analysis and trying to breakdown each matchup and the teams as a whole. There are many bloggers and analysists much better suited for that task than I. Here are a few of the better takes I've seen:

(HoopsHype) Chicago Bulls (62-20) vs. Miami Heat (58-24): (Predicts Heat in 6)

(Pro Basketball Talk) Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Bulls vs. Heat: (Predicts Heat in 6)

(Bulls Confidential) How the Bulls can beat the Heat

(CBS - Eye on Basketball) Bulls-Heat Preview: Clash of the you-know-whats: (Predicts Heat in 7)

[This is a must-read breakdown, and not just because Zach Lowe picks the Bulls]
(SI - The Point Forward) Bulls vs. Heat Eastern finals: What to watch: (Predicts Bulls in 7)

Most ECF previews and predictions break down the matchups by position, so here are my rambling thoughts in that format:

Basically, we need our combo of Boozer and Taj to match Bosh. That matchup has to be a wash for most of the other stuff to matter. However, the thing to remember is that Bosh is the Heat's 3rd option! So if both teams get 18/10 from their respective PFs, we've only matched their 3rd option with the guy who was supposed to be our second option (Boozer), and his backup (because I assumed Taj will get significant minutes, and the Heat don't have a backup ... so it's Booz + Taj against Bosh!).

Next, we have Rose dominating the PG matchup. Not worth discussing.

Noah should dominate the C matchup in a similar manner, but he's not an offensive player that can take over and win a game. He needs to dominate on the glass and by being available for help D (taking up space in the lane and altering shots). This is where Asik comes in, and where I once again use the buddy system (Noah + Asik) to point out the Bulls' advantage over the Heat's craptastic group of Cs. Again, the key aspect being dominating the paint (or as Simmons' calls it: the 6-feet in front of the rim), we have two guys capable of controlling that space ... do the Heat have anyone? (Should that be "has" or "have" - I hate singular team names, another strike against the Heat.)

Then we get to the Heat's advantages: Wade and Lebron. These 2 are unstoppable, and it's still somewhat shocking that they play on the same NBA team. But the Bulls' have wing players to make things ... interesting? difficult? Bogans and Brewer are great defenders at the 2, and anything we get offensively is pure bonus. Deng has quietly (or perhaps not quietly) been the Bulls' non-Rose-MVP. He's been spactacular: hitting 3s, slashing, rebounding, and most importantly on D. His footwork has improved exponentially and he really gets Thibs' system. He was a really good defender before, and he is GREAT now ... so he can certainly challenge Lebron. But clearly, both matchups heavily favor the Heat.

So in the 5 major matchups ... we have: 1 tie, Bulls favored in 2, and Heat favored in 2.

I keep coming back to our 2 advantages (Rose and Noah), versus their 2 advantages (Wade and Lebron). Rose and Noah should both be HUGE advantages for the Bulls, while Wade and Lebron(hopefully) aren't quite as big of advantages for the Heat, given our D players at those spots and Thibs' system. Obviously Wade and Lebron can't won't be stopped, but we can make them work for everything with our defensive personnel and Thibs' system, which funnels and helps with perimeter stars.

Beyond positional match-ups and our-system-versus-their-players analysis, I think that Rose or Wade or Lebron will be the best player on the floor any given night. And often, the team with the best player during a playoff game can win that game. Clearly, with Wade AND Lebron, the Heat have the advanatage of having a better chance at having the best player on any given night. I'm thinking that one of Wade or Lebron should be the best player in 4-5 games during this series, with Rose being the best player 2 or possibly (hopefully?) 3 times out of 7 games. This means the Heat will likely have the best player on the floor for 4 (or 5) games out of 7, with Rose taking that role 2 (or hopefully 3) times ... and the Bulls will need a team effort to overcome that disadvantage.

We can only expect Rose to carry the offense so far. We need Noah to get O-rebs and putbacks, we need Korver to knock down shots, we need Taj and CJ to provide a spark off the bench ... we need what we've gotten all season. If we are going to beat the Heat, we are going to ride on Rose's back, but he'll need some help ... it'll be our hometown superstar leading a Bulls' TEAM past Miami's two and a half men. We need other guys to step up and overcome one big night from Wade or Lebron and maybe swing one game when Rose isn't the best player. Can that be done by Luol? or the Booz/Taj combo? or the Bulls' BenchMob - possibly Korver or CJ?

The Bulls have home-court advantage + everyone is HOPING they win, but almost everyone predicting the Heat will win, so the Bulls are somehow the underdogs with home-court advantage. They can ride the energy of the crowd (and entire country outside of Miami) cheering for them, while still having an "us against the world" mindset. So after all that ... I think it's a pretty even series. Maybe the Heat steal game 1, they can shock and overwhelm the shock Bulls as they adjust from playing the Hawks. The Bulls bench is much more talented, and won't be facing such a tough environment in Miami, so they will help the Bull to re-set homecourt by winning game 4.

So I end up where I started - brain (Heat in 6) versus heart (Bulls in 7). And either way, I'm proud to be a life-long Bulls fan as we head into this series. We've all waited 12 long years to get back to this point, playing in (and having a real chance to win) the Eastern Conference Finals, and it really was worth the wait. Maybe the Heat will beat the Bulls and win the title this year, and their "fans" can celebrate at their second "championship rally" less than 12-months after that team became relevant ...

But Bulls' fans don't need a "super team" or 2.5 superstars to support our team. We stuck around for a pretty rough decade after "The Last Dance", whether they were winning or losing, true Bulls' fans have stayed with this team. We've waited 12 years for the Bulls to get back here, and whether it's in two months or next year or five years from now, the wait will be worth it when this Bulls team brings the old summer tradition back to Chicago. Summer starts with a rally in Grant Park, I'll be at the next one no matter how long I have to wait.

But for the record, I've got the Bulls over the Heat in 7, and I'll see you all at the rally in June.

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