NBA playoffs: Miami Heat vs. Chicago Bulls preview
Miami will resume its championship defense confident and refreshed, having done away with Milwaukee in such prompt fashion that it earned a full week's rest before the second round. Yet the Bulls are conditioned for an uphill battle against improbability after clawing through a drag-out, seven-game series with the Nets that Chicago seemed fated to lose. They'll find the odds stacked against them again in this series, which pits a depleted Bulls roster against utterly stacked opposition. Still, Chicago comes armed with a guile and persistence that should help to offset the losses to their lineup and make for some competitive basketball.
By virtue of being the better, healthier, more talented team. Miami will enter every series this postseason as a decisive favorite, and should overwhelm Chicago in this particular series based on offensive leverage. Guarding the Heat is a never-ending series of no-win propositions. Should the Bulls play LeBron James aggressively in order to prevent him from getting to the rim, they risk a cross-court pass to the open man in the opposite corner. Should they hedge harder against Dwyane Wade in the pick-and-roll, they concede an easy mid-range jumper for Chris Bosh, which he converts at an exceptional 50.2-percent clip according to NBA.com. Every slide and rotation comes at a clear cost, as Miami has become far too good at exploiting even the briefest of windows with a perfect pass to an efficient scorer.
That's bad news for a Bulls team that looked uncharacteristically sloppy on the defensive end in the first round -- a shortcoming obscured by both Brooklyn's space-killing lineups and Chicago's unexpected scoring efficiency. Tom Thibodeau will have a short window to address those issues before the series against the Heat kicks off, but even his top-notch coaching can only do so much to empower an outclassed (and dinged up) roster that could be without both Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich.
On the other side of the ball, the Heat's pressure-heavy defense stands to get the better of the undermanned Bulls, who could be particularly vulnerable if Hinrich is forced to miss time. The veteran point guard may be neither a standout scorer nor a brilliant playmaker, but there's a calm to the way he works off the dribble that would seem essential in breaking down the Heat's traps and scrambles. Explosive though a scorer like Robinson may be, no one would soon praise his patience as a creator -- a shortcoming that will prove painful as the Heat block off the rim, cut off his immediate passing lanes and encourage the kinds of difficult shots that Robinson is all too willing to take.
There's a certain freedom that comes with having nothing to lose, and thus far, the relief of any expectation has allowed the Bulls to play ardent, winning basketball. The offense may be derived from nightly experimentation and the defense a bit more fallible than usual, but Chicago's energy creates a means for victory that can be difficult to predict or to fully explain. They shouldn't win this series, and likely won't. Yet the Bulls compete on every possession, and will at the very least force the Heat to execute and adjust to a point that may make the championship favorites uncomfortable. That in itself won't lead to a series victory, but it could set in motion the rather precise criteria that the Bulls would need to pull off a seemingly impossible upset.
The defense would have to return to regular-season form and then some, with the effervescent Joakim Noah and a resurgent Deng leading the charge against the most potent offensive team in the NBA. Beyond that, the Bulls would have to find the perfect means for balancing their defensive efficacy with the necessary offensive firepower -- a tough task given how split this roster is in terms of players with offense- or defense-specific value. Chicago would need to claim dominion over the offensive glass and limit its live-ball turnovers in order to win the possession battle, all while hoping that a few days' rest has lulled Miami into mid-playoff complacency. James' shooting would need to take an errant turn, Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers would have to continue to misfire from beyond the arc (they shot a combined 6-of-26 from three-point range in the first round) and Wade would need to dominate the ball while displaying some staggeringly horrid shot selection. If the Bulls are lucky, they may see one or two of those variables turn their way in this series. But in order to actually win this seven-game spread, they'd need favorable outcomes across the board.
Jimmy Butler. Deng's injury heaps even more of a defensive burden on Chicago's second-year stalwart, who will likely alternate between guarding Wade, James and Ray Allen over the course of this series. He's more than proven his defensive chops up to this point, but Butler's handling of such a challenging and diverse group of Heat wing players should make for one of the series' more entertaining subplots.
Heat in 5. Chicago will put up a fight in this series, and seems likely to catch Miami in one game based on grit alone. But the Bulls' postseason unfortunately ends here, with an admirable playoff showing set ablaze by the high-powered offense and stifling defense of the defending champs.