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Saturday, May 11, 2013

Miami Reclaims Home Court Advantage Against Determined but Shorthanded Chicago

Due to injuries, foul trouble and an ejection, four Chicago players played at least 42 minutes in Friday night's game three versus Miami. Despite being so shorthanded, the Bulls led the 66-16 Heat by as many as seven points and they forged a 70-70 tie entering the fourth quarter. Four-time MVP LeBron James James had a pedestrian game by his lofty standards--25 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, 6-17 field goal shooting--but he took over in the fourth quarter, scoring 12 of Miami's 34 points as the reigning champions pulled away for a 104-94 win. Even before James authored that great final stanza, his performance and demeanor were a lot different than they were when he infamously quit versus Boston in the 2010 playoffs and versus Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals; in the two earlier situations, James did not aggressively seek to score or to create scoring opportunities for his teammates but against Chicago James was actively engaged throughout the game, even at the times when he was not as productive or as efficient as usual. James understands this difference very well and he has even spoken about it publicly, admitting that he previously let the defense off the hook by not attacking in the paint; statistics alone do not indicate a player's effort level, because a player's talent and role can enable him to put up certain numbers even when he is not fully engaged: it is necessary to watch an entire game in order to determine a player's effort level and intensity, traits that cannot be found in the box score. The 2010 and 2011 versions of James might have put up similar numbers in game three but he would not have made the key attacking plays in the fourth quarter and his team likely would have lost because of this; if James had settled for two or three long jumpers instead of attacking the hoop he may have still finished with 20-8-7 instead of 25-8-7 but those few empty possessions would have changed the outcome of the game even if the "stat gurus" would not find much difference between those respective box score totals.

While LeBron James is deservedly the headliner, the Heat would not have won without Chris Bosh's 20 points, playoff career-high 19 rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots. Bosh is very underrated by media members and fans, though the coaches have selected him for the All-Star Game seven times (the fans have picked him as a starter just once). Bosh's versatility is invaluable at both ends of the court: he can post up (though this is not his favorite thing to do), he can score facing up (even beyond the three point line), he sets solid screens, he is a good passer, he rebounds well and his length/mobility enable him to defend multiple positions. The Heat would not be a championship caliber team without his many contributions.

James has been so consistently outstanding and Bosh has been so consistently productive that not much is being said about Dwyane Wade's subpar play; Wade is fourth on the team in scoring versus Chicago (13.0 ppg) and he has almost as many fouls (eight) as rebounds (nine). Earlier this season, Charles Barkley called Wade a declining player. During the regular season, Wade averaged 21.2 ppg while shooting a career-high .521 from the field but he missed 13 games and he has been hobbled by knee problems for the past two years. Those statistics suggest that when healthy Wade's skills may not have declined by much but he is 31 years old and he has been throwing his body into the paint for 10 seasons. All of that pounding has predictably and inevitably taken its toll; Wade never developed a consistent jump shot or post up game (though his inability to drive now has forced him to rely on posting up more than usual), so it has long been obvious that he would not be as effective or durable in his 30s as Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, who was still performing at an MVP level in his 17th season at 34 years of age before his Achilles ruptured under the weight of the L.A. Lakers' ineptitude.

Speaking of ineptitude, here is a thought experiment for anyone who believes that coaching does not matter: picture the Lakers with Tom Thibodeau at the helm and the Bulls with Mike D'Antoni calling the shots. It is hard to imagine that under those conditions the Lakers would have only been the seventh seed or that the Bulls would have made the playoffs, much less advanced past the first round. Thibodeau's Bulls have an excellent defensive game plan, they maximize their limited offensive potential and they always play hard. In contrast, when Hubie Brown covered the Lakers during the playoffs he could not even identify what the Lakers' defensive game plan is and the Lakers did not play with much energy at either end of the court. Leadership matters in all walks of life and the NBA is no exception.

Jeff Van Gundy recently told an interesting story about his time as Pat Riley's assistant. Riley asked an injured player who was dressed in street clothes if that player could give the team even one minute and the player said that he could, whereupon Riley then snarled that the player should be in uniform if that is the case. I don't presume to know what is going on in Derrick Rose's mind or body but he has been practicing with the team for months now. If there is any way that he could play 20, 10 or even five minutes for the shorthanded Bulls then how can he watch from the bench as his teammates give their all against the powerhouse Heat? Maybe Rose really just cannot play but if that is the case then he and the team should say so, because what is happening now does not look right--even if Rose's teammates and some media members are defending Rose. I want to believe that Rose is doing everything he can to come back as quickly as possible but at this point it seems like Rose should either suit up or shut it down until next season. What could possibly change in the next day or two to make him ready to play? If he plays in game four then why couldn't he have played in game three? Rookie Marquis Teague did the best that he could in 11 game three minutes but the Bulls were outscored by four points when he was on the court; what if Rose had played those minutes instead? Even if Rose were rusty, his presence would have altered Miami's defense and possibly created scoring opportunities for the offensively challenged Bulls. Even at 50% or 60% effectiveness, Rose could tip the balance of power in this series.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:14 PM

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