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Monday, April 30, 2007

Gone Fishing: Miami's Title Defense Swept Away by Relentless Bulls

The Miami Heat's title defense went full circle: it started with a blowout loss to the Chicago Bulls on opening night and it ended on Sunday when Chicago completed an impressive sweep of the 2006 NBA champions with a 92-79 victory. Ben Gordon led the Bulls with 24 points, while Luol Deng had 22 points and 12 rebounds. Dwyane Wade had 24 points, 10 assists and five rebounds but he shot just 8-22 from the field and had seven turnovers. Shaquille O'Neal contributed 16 points and seven rebounds, Alonzo Mourning shot 6-6 from the field for his 14 points and James Posey had an odd stat line: 1-8 shooting, five points--and 18 rebounds.

Ben Wallace's performance deserves special mention. His value is largely not captured by numbers but a couple aspects of his performance in this series stand out: Wallace held O'Neal scoreless for the entire fourth quarter of game four as the Bulls closed out the Heat and Wallace outrebounded O'Neal 39-34 during the series. Wallace had 13 points, 11 rebounds, one blocked shot and one steal in game four. With less than three minutes remaining and the Heat trailing 82-77, Heat Coach Pat Riley resorted to the "Hack a Ben" strategy, intentionally fouling Wallace away from the ball, hoping that the notoriously poor free throw shooter would miss both attempts (if you do this with less than two minutes remaining, the fouled team gets to select the shooter and keep the ball). Wallace twice stepped up and went 2-2, part of a 7-8 performance by him from the free throw line.

When the defending champions are resorting to playing tag with Wallace, chasing him around the court while he tries to evade "capture" so that the Bulls can run more time off of the clock, you know that the Heat have exhausted all serious options and realize that they cannot win by basketball skill alone. Even though some prominent coaches have used the "Hack a Ben" (or "Hack a Shaq") strategy, I don't believe that it is a sound approach. I asked Clippers Coach Mike Dunleavy about this when the Clippers visited Indiana in December 2005. Dunleavy steadfastly defended the tactic but I see two big drawbacks: if the hacked player shoots just 50% then you have to shoot better than 50% from the field (or make some three pointers) to gain any ground; the parade to the free throw line allows the other team to set up their defense and may get your own team out of whatever offensive rhythm they have established while trying to come back.

After the game, Gordon talked about Wallace's value: "I can't even explain all the things he has helped us with that don't show up on the stat sheet. I think he is the best big-man passer in the league. He likes to tell me he's a point forward sometimes. He likes to throw no-looks. He does a lot besides the usual things everybody expects."

Bulls Coach Scott Skiles added: "He has been a rock all season long. He is a very underrated offensive player. Everybody thinks if you don't score, you can't play offense. He is an excellent passer. He can put the ball on the floor. We can play off him in the high post. We can make cuts off him. And that doesn't say anything about his defense and rebounding. He is a serious player."

Perhaps this series will help rebut a couple myths, namely that the regular season does not matter and that Shaquille O'Neal, despite his horrible career free throw percentage, "makes them when they count." The Heat seemed to treat this season as a trifling matter to be disposed of, apparently believing that they could turn it on in the playoffs. Granted, some of their injury situations could not have been predicted or controlled but the Heat were at full strength (other than Jason Williams) on opening night against these same Bulls--and lost 108-66. The Heat stayed below .500 for most of the season before making a late surge when O'Neal returned to the lineup after a long absence due to a knee injury. The reality is that the regular season matters; that is when teams earn home court advantage (which the Bulls used in this series to grab a 2-0 lead) and when they work out the structure and chemistry that are necessary for postseason success. Look how well the Bulls play together now. There were some rough spots during the regular season but they used those games to get Wallace and some other new additions acclimated to Skiles' system.

As for O'Neal's free throws, he shot 9-27 during the series, including 3-19 in the two games in Miami (0-7 in game four). I still don't understand how some free throws "count" more than others in O'Neal's thinking. If you make them early, then maybe you won't be behind late in the game--and if you miss 16 free throws in two games then you have cost your team a lot of points; last I checked, free throws count the same no matter when they are scored. If anything, it makes more sense to speak of making field goals "when they count." Field goals are contested shots, so if you are a star player the other team can load up their defense to stop you late in the game--but free throws are, well, free.

The acquisition of Ben Wallace has already paid some dividends, giving the Bulls the inside presence they needed to deal with O'Neal and the Heat, who eliminated the Bulls in six games last year. Next up will be a very interesting matchup with Wallace's old team, the Detroit Pistons. The Bulls beat them 3-1 in the regular season, just like they beat the Heat 3-1 in 2006-07. I will post a preview of that series soon.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:40 AM


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At Monday, April 30, 2007 3:36:00 AM, Anonymous db said...

I thought you were off base on how the Bulls would deal with the Heat, but I was way wrong. Wade isn't looking himself at all. Anyway, I'm pretty happy about it as the Bulls are a much more likeable team.

At Monday, April 30, 2007 5:18:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Yes, Wade's injuries definitely limited him but this would have been a difficult matchup for the Heat even if they were at full strength. The Bulls took them to six games last year without Wallace. Also, Deng is a better player now than he was last year.

I did not expect a sweep, mainly because of the grit that Miami showed during last year's title run but also because the Bulls were not a great road team this year, including the loss in New Jersey that dropped them from second to fifth in the East.

At Monday, April 30, 2007 11:18:00 AM, Blogger marcel said...

miami gone for along time shaq done wade will come back but theres not going to be enough you have up and coming teams to worry about cleaveland chicago there done


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