Chicago Versus Miami PreviewEastern Conference Finals
#1 Chicago (62-20) vs. #2 Miami (58-24)
Season series: Chicago, 3-0
Miami can win if...the Heat force a lot of turnovers that they convert into transition points. The Heat are an aggressive defensive team--particularly on the perimeter--but they can be vulnerable inside against patient, physical teams that do not panic and do not turn the ball over. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are almost impossible to stop in the open court but elite defensive teams can at least slow them down in the half court by building a "wall" around the paint and forcing them to shoot jump shots.
Chicago will win because...the Bulls are a tough, physical, defensive-minded team that will seal off the paint and force James and Wade to make contested two point jump shots. The Bulls run excellent half court offensive sets and their big men can give the Heat some problems by attacking the paint for layups, dunks and offensive rebounds.
Other things to consider: When the Heat eliminated the Boston Celtics in five games they celebrated as if they had won the NBA title, prompting TNT's Charles Barkley to wonder aloud if the Heat realized that all they had done was win a second round series (contrast the Heat's reaction with how the Mavs responded to beating the Lakers and also keep in mind that the Celtics don't even raise banners for conference championships, a level of success that the Heat are still four wins away from attaining). If the Heat feel like beating the Celtics is equivalent to winning the NBA title and/or cleared the path to easily doing so then they are in for quite a shock; the Celtics are proud former champions but they are old and they lack the physical presence in the paint that they had before they traded Kendrick Perkins.
The Boston-Miami storyline captured the public's imagination but the Chicago-Miami storyline is at least as interesting in its own right; while many teams literally begged LeBron James to sign with them last summer, Derrick Rose reportedly told James that James could join the strong team that the Bulls were building or else the Bulls would defeat James if he went somewhere else. Rose is trying to lead his hometown team to an NBA title without the benefit of playing alongside a big name superstar but the Bulls are much more talented and deep than the national media is willing to admit (the national media have convinced themselves that only Kobe Bryant has a good supporting cast--though perhaps this year's playoffs have at least caused them to tentatively reconsider this idea--and that every other team is fatally flawed in some way); I would take Chicago's deep frontcourt as a collective unit over the Lakers' more touted frontcourt even though Pau Gasol is the most talented individual frontcourt player on either team.
LeBron James is a better all-around individual player than Derrick Rose but Rose has a finely tuned sense of exactly what his team needs for him to do; it sometimes seems like James is trying to prove a point or trying to accumulate particular numbers as opposed to simply making the right play, though he did perform brilliantly in the clutch (even if the "stat gurus" might not technically define what James did as "clutch") down the stretch of game five to eliminate the Celtics (which is exactly what I predicted James would do, though I thought that he would have to do it in game seven instead of game five). It would be deliciously ironic if Rose and his supposedly no-name supporting cast--a team very similar to the one that James left behind in Cleveland--beat the star-studded Miami Heat.
Have you noticed that almost nothing that has come out of James' mouth in the past year or so made any sense? From "taking my talents to South Beach" (is he going to Florida to party or to win a championship?), to calling a reporter's question "retarded" to belatedly apologizing for how he handled his "Decision" but then throwing his old teammates under the bus by saying that he "could not beat Boston by myself" (as if he were playing one on five or as if we are supposed to forget that he quit in game five versus Boston last season), James has repeatedly stuck his foot in his mouth. This does not invalidate his greatness as a player but it is just strange to watch/hear such nonsense after he spent the first part of his career seemingly hitting the right note every time he spoke publicly.
James appears to believe that star power alone wins in the NBA--he says that the success of the Celtics' star-studded team inspired him to join forces with Wade and Chris Bosh--but while star power is often important it is far from the only ingredient in a championship recipe; a championship team must be fully committed to defense and rebounding (contrast Chicago's multiple efforts in those categories with the lackadaisical performances offered in this year's postseason by nearly every Laker not named Kobe Bryant) and it must have players who can fill various roles in high pressure situations. James seems to think that he and Wade can take all of the shots, score all of the points and coast to a title. Their overpowering athleticism is indeed enough to win 50-plus games a season for the foreseeable future but only time will tell if it is also good enough to consistently beat elite teams in seven game playoff series.
Bosh is a versatile big man who can score in the post or hit the faceup jumper but James and Wade tend to take turns monopolizing the ball, relegating perennial All-Star Bosh into being little more than a Horace Grant-type power forward crashing the offensive boards from the weak side (Grant was a very good player but Bosh is a much more gifted and versatile scorer than Grant, even though the Heat only showcase Bosh's abilities on a sporadic basis). It is fascinating to observe the way that many members of the national media cover two similar stories in a vastly different way: whenever Pau Gasol's numbers go down, it is usually asserted that Kobe Bryant is selfishly shooting too much and not feeding Gasol the ball (Gasol played so meekly during this year's playoffs that the normally calm Coach Phil Jackson slapped Gasol in the chest to wake Gasol up, so even the biased media realized that Bryant could not be blamed this time for Gasol's declining numbers)--but, as I mentioned two months ago, Bosh and Coach Erik Spoelstra have been designated by the media as the scapegoats if the Heat do not win the NBA championship. Look at how many references there are to the Heat as "Two and a Half Men," as if Bosh somehow has been reduced not just from All-Star status but to something less than a full man. Bosh was a five-time All-Star and a 2007 All-NBA Second Team selection before he joined the Heat; he finished seventh in the 2007 MVP balloting. The assertion that he is not a legit, top 15 caliber player in the NBA is absurd but fits right in with the way that the media and "stat gurus" consistently denigrate the players surrounding James and Wade.
There has been a not so subtle shift in the media's narrative about the Heat; before this season began, we were told that James and Wade are arguably the two best players in the NBA and that they would prove to be an unstoppable duo that would lead the Heat to 70-plus wins and multiple championships. The Heat had a good but hardly dominant regular season, so now we are told that Bosh is some kind of liability and that the rest of the roster--which has been upgraded during the season with the addition of Mike Bibby, who had been the starting point guard for a playoff bound team in Atlanta--is useless. The excuses are already in place if the Heat lose and yet the groundwork has also been laid to coronate James and Wade if the Heat win the title (ESPN actually wasted part of a segment of a recent pregame show entertaining the notion that James and Wade may be a superior duo than Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, a conversation that is at least six years premature). Let's be perfectly clear: James is the best player in the NBA, Wade is a top six player (Rose moved past him this season), the Heat have enough talent to win a championship and if the Heat win a title that does not instantly make James and Wade into superheroes.
After the Bulls beat the Heat will the media have to transform Rose into a superhero to explain how such an "upset" could happen?
posted by David Friedman @ 2:47 PM