Focus will be on D as league's top slashers meet in Eastern finals
Heat-Bulls Eastern Conference finals pits two MVPs in Derrick Rose, LeBron James
The emphasis will be on defense for both teams, but expect Miami to prevail
More: Celtics focus on long-term future; Ranking LeBron-Wade among top duos
|(1) Bulls vs. (2) Heat|
The Eastern Conference finals creates a matchup of recent MVPs -- Derrick Rose vs. LeBron James -- that nobody would have predicted a year ago. They embody this rejuvenated era of open-court dunking, slashing drives and an insatiable talent for creating any kind of shot.
But I wonder if there are going to be many of those highlight plays in this series. I think we're going to see a lot more defense than offense, and if the Bulls have their way, there will be very few games in the 100s. The dearth of scoring may resemble some of the hard-line defensive series of the previous decade, though the style of that defense will be much more entertaining than the muscular lockdown approach of, say, the old Knicks-Heat rivalry.
The most impressive aspect of James, Rose, Dwyane Wade and the other young stars of the East has been their willingness to excel in the least attractive areas of the game. Both teams are still playing because their explosive athleticism has been applied to the defensive end of the floor.
Rose became the NBA's best player while leading the Bulls with averages of 25 points and 7.7 assists; even James endorsed him as league MVP. But Rose's most important contribution began in training camp, where he aligned himself to new coach Tom Thibodeau's defense-first approach. Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Keith Bogans and the other Bulls run the same load-up defense that Thibodeau developed for the Celtics.
The Celtics weren't healthy or energetic enough to defend in the previous round. Miami succeeded in shooting 45.1 percent across the five games, scoring the final 16 points of Game 5 to finish them off. Dwyane Wade shot 52.6 percent for his 30.2 points per game in that series, while LeBron James averaged 28 points while shooting 47.2 percent.
It's a decent bet that the younger, deeper and healthier Bulls will perform better defensively. Bogans and Ronnie Brewer can focus on Wade, while the underrated Deng will have the assistance of Noah and others against LeBron. This series is going to be all about stopping -- rather than outscoring -- the opponent.
The same concerns exist for Miami, which will rely heavily on backup point guard Mario Chalmers to defend Rose. No single defender can keep Rose out of the paint, but Wade will be able to help while drifting off Bogans, Brewer or -- in a riskier move -- Kyle Korver. James and Joel Anthony will continue to be hyperactive defensively.
The swing matchup may be at power forward, where Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer -- viewed along with Amar'e Stoudemire as the top free agents at that position last summer -- will each be trying to improve on their inconsistent postseason showings thus far. Miami may be willing to absorb prolific scoring from Rose: If he is putting up a lot of attempts, that will mean he isn't setting up teammates who need him to create their shots.
In the old days of defensive showdowns, the style of play was unwatchable. But the rule changes of the last decade have diminished isolation play and replaced it with ball movement, and that ball movement, in turn, has created athletic play on defense. Not only will you see Rose slashing inside for layups or kick-outs, but you'll also see Wade dashing crosscourt to contest a three by Bogans or Korver. The defense itself will be entertaining.
Let's say the defenses are equally effective. In that case, this series is going to come down to the final minutes, and in that setting the advantage goes to Miami. Yes, Chicago won all three games during the regular season, but those losses set the Heat on their way. Since the five-game losing streak that included its 87-86 loss to Chicago in early March, Miami has gone 23-5 overall -- with a 10-2 record against teams that would reach the final eight of these playoffs.
Now that the Heat stars have learned to play together, they're ready to cash in on this opportunity to reach the NBA Finals. James has been there before, Wade has already won a championship, and both have been obsessed all season with returning there. The Bulls are here for the first time, and can they learn enough on the fly to overcome Miami's experience? NBA history says they won't. Miami will win in six games.