Saturday, 14 May 2011

Bulls eliminate Atlanta to set up Miami battle

Sunday night, possibly one of the most anticipated series in recent times will tip off. The #1 seeded Chicago Bulls take on the #2 seeded Miami Heat for the right to play in the 2011 NBA Finals.

Oh boy.

7pm Eastern, 1am here in the United Kingdom, the two teams at polar opposites in play style will commence what promises to be a battle royal.

Chicago may have swept the season series 3-0, but this Miami team has evolved so much since that last win in March, playing at a very high level in this post-season. They ousted a solid Philadelphia team in 5 games, and then beat an old but still dangerous Boston Celtics in 5. Chicago has had the opposite in Playoff performances so far. They knocked out an Indiana side that really tested the Bulls (5 games) and then again with the Hawks giving them a few issues in a 6 game series. While Chicago has had it's share of bad games in rounds 1 and 2, their performances in Game 5 of the Indiana Pacers series, and Games 3 and 6 of the Atlanta Hawks series underlined their real identities.

The Heat have 3 (or 2.5?) superstars in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, 2 of which are destined for the Hall of Fame. They rely on these 3 to score in tons to carry them through. LeBron is one of the league's top scorers and Wade can match him. Bosh has ups and downs from game-to-game but is still worthy of a double-team at times. Beyond these three superstars, they have Mike Bibby running "Point Guard", a name that means little as LeBron and Wade carry the ball more than Bibby does. They also have Center Udonis Haslem returning from a long lay-off, but trying to integrate someone into a Playoff-ready squad is very difficult.

Chicago rely on substance as opposed to the Heat's style. They get a massive contribution from their self-proclaimed 'Bench Mob' of CJ Watson, Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik. The bench were pivotal in Game 5 of the Atlanta series, with Thibodeau riding Gibson and Asik over Noah and Boozer for the 4th Quarter. Watson is growing into a capable replacement Point Guard for when Rose rests. All he has to do, and is doing, is control the offense enough that the Bulls can maintain their lead while their leader is off the floor. Korver is a streaky shooter, though leaving him wide open is a recipe for disaster. Chicago need him to get hot during the Conference Finals. Gibson, a fantastic defender and an inside presence on offense, some fans have called for him to be starting over Boozer. They have gone quiet recently. Gibson and Asik together form an almost impenetrable wall around the basket. Asik was truly inspiring against Atlanta, putting on a masterclass in double-team defense.

Let's look at the battles of this series.

Derrick Rose vs Mike Bibby:
Mike Bibby will probably never want to hear Rose's name again after this series. Though every player who has to (try to) defend Rose must feel the same, he is impossible to stay in front of. Verdict: Rose (1-0)

Dwyane Wade vs Keith Bogans:
An important battle here. Bogans proved his defensive class against Atlanta's top scorer; Joe Johnson. Johnson hit 34pts in a Game 1 win, but Bogans held him to 34 points combined in Games 3, 4 and 5. Wade is probably one of the top defensive guards in the league, and his offense is probably just as good. If Chicago want to win this series, Bogans will have to score those few 3-pt shots he gets each game, to force the Heat to at least defend him. If he goes cold, his defender will instantly go and put another body between Rose and the basket. Verdict: Wade (1-1)

Carlos Boozer vs Chris Bosh:
The two CBs, Boozer and Bosh, are by far the two most criticized players this season. Bosh was lamented for invisible nights, leading to talk of him not really being part of the "Big 3" in Florida. Bosh shot 1-18 against the Bulls earlier this year, the worst performance seen in 38 years. Boozer had been hitting his form after missing the first 15 games of the season with injury, before he sprained his ankle twice. He has not hit the same heights since. Then, a turf toe injury at the end of the Pacers series further limited his effectiveness leading to him being booed off court in the first game (a loss) of the Hawks series. His 23pt-10reb explosion in Game 6 effectively eliminated the Hawks while providing Bulls fans with the hope that he has returned to much-needed form.
Verdict: Draw (1.5-1.5)

Joakim Noah vs Joel Anthony:
Joakim Noah will get the better of Anthony in this match-up. Noah is the Bulls engine unit in defense, running around double-teaming before recovering and collecting the rebounds. His ability to tap offensive rebounds back out to Rose is very important. Verdict: Noah (2.5-1.5)

Bulls bench vs Heat bench:
The Bulls' bench is one of the better scoring bench units around. That's not to mention the fact that as a group, the Bulls bench is the best defensive unit in the NBA. Omer Asik's length is enough to stop any player, Gibson  is a mix of Power Forward and Center, easily long enough to play at Center, he will likely be used to counter Bosh if Boozer starts to struggle. Korver as I said above, will be crucial as when he is connecting on his shots, he spreads the court more for Rose and Deng. The Heat bench is sparse. Worryingly so. Udonis Haslem returned against Boston but looked hopelessly lost in picking up a foul and a technical all series. If the Heat's starting 5 get into a hole like they tend to do, they could be in real trouble. Verdict: Bulls (3.5-1.5)

Luol Deng vs LeBron James:
LeBron is by far the better offensive player, perhaps deserving of an MVP award this year himself. But Deng's length has bothered James for years. When Deng is on the floor, James shoots 17% compared to 40% with Deng off the floor. James has the tools to beat the Bulls by himself. Deng had a case for making the NBA Defensive 2nd-team if not the first-team. His persistence and ability to keep himself between his man and the basket, as well as not giving away fouls in the process, is unparalleled. He has often been labelled the "X-Factor" and "glue" of this Bulls team and it is pretty true. He is the Bulls' second scoring option behind the MVP and when he gets his 20 point average, it takes a massive load off of Rose's young shoulders. Verdict: Lebron's offense beats Deng's defense; James. (3.5-2.5)

Tom Thibodeau vs Erik Spoelstra:
Two relatively inexperienced head-coaches. Thibodeau was the mastermind behind the Boston defense that won the 2008 NBA Title. He has came to Chicago in his first year as a head coach and turned them into the top defensive team in the NBA. Spoelstra always had an incredibly hard job to do in managing Wade and James' egos. He has achieved harmony it would seem as the Heat have appeared a team in recent weeks. His weakness is his team's reliance on Isolation 'plays' for Lebron and Wade that turn the rest of the team into spectators. If the Heat run too much of this stagnant offense, the Bulls' smothering defense will sink it's teeth.
Verdict: Thibodeau (4.5-2.5)

Result: Bulls 4.5 - 2.5 Heat.

Series Prediction: So impossibly hard to predict as this series will be decided by a vast number of battles and intangibles. Though as a Bulls fan, I have to pick my team, though it could easily go the way of Miami. Bulls win 4-3

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