Since the start of the playoffs, it looked obvious that two teams had separated themselves from the pack. The Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat. It seemed inevitable (at least to me) that they would meet in the Eastern Conference Finals.
No offense to Atlanta or Boston, but they simply aren't on the same level as Chicago and Miami. Atlanta was lucky to hang in for six games as Chicago really only brought their A game twice, won with their B game twice, and lost with their C/D game twice. Boston had the scheme, but not the athleticism to stick with the Heat. Father time rarely loses when competing against athletes.
The Heat are the favorite
I've fairly consistently said all season long the Heat were the toughest opponent in the conference. I had hoped that by some miracle Boston would finish them off for us, but we're going to have to do our own dirty work.
If you're in doubt of whether this opinion is rational or not, go look up the Vegas odds. Vegas odds are a rational place. They don't have homer bias. They are biased to make the most money.
That said, upsets happen, and these teams aren't light years apart. The Bulls can beat the Heat.
The Bulls need to defend like the last five quarters against Atlanta
The Chicago Bulls just threw down championship caliber defense in the last five quarters of basketball they've played. They smothered the Hawks like they had no business being in the game.
With the right energy level, they can do the same thing to Miami. Watching the Boston/Miami series, the one thing the Celtics had going for them was a smothering double team that frequently forced Miami into tough shots. The Bulls defense played the same way against the Hawks.
The Bulls will need to use their depth and smother LeBron and Wade all game long to put the ball in the hands of their shooters and Chris Bosh to see whether those guys can make plays. With quick rotations, the Bulls should manage to cover up on the Heat shooters and not leave them with easy shots.
However, unlike Atlanta, Miami has a plethora of shooters who will catch and release immediately and can hit over 40% from the three point line, so the Bulls will need to rotate quickly and efficiently.
The Bulls have plenty of guys to help at the basket, but Wade and LeBron are too good of finishers if your help defenders are starting inside the circle. The Bulls need to help further out rather than depending on their big men to make plays where its more likely that LeBron/Wade will have picked up their dribble and will draw the foul on any contact.
Hot shooting is an underdogs best friend
The Bulls have minimized Derrick's three point attempts recently to the benefit of Chicago. However, Luol Deng, Kyle Korver, and Keith Bogans need to launch open threes whenever they get them, and they need to knock them down. Hot shooting opens up the floor for everyone else to drive as well as providing efficient scoring.
The key is to take quality three point looks. Get your three point shots on catch and shoots from dribble penetration or post ups. Don't settle for off the dribble pull up threes except as a last resort and limit the times where Korver comes off a base line screen and has to come off a hard cut then turn, catch, and shoot in one motion.
The Bulls need quality three point shooting, and the key to getting it is maximizing quality attempts rather than forcing the issue with three point shots.
Keep the pace low, but use your depth to play with frenetic energy
Chicago should press the crap out of Miami with Bogans and Brewer going all out with their defensive intensity every second they're on the floor. They can use all five big men to trap aggressively and wear down LeBron and Wade with wave after wave of defenders attacking them.
However, just because the energy level is high doesn't mean the pace should be. Miami is most deadly in the open court, the key to victory will be keeping this a half court affair and forcing them to score through our energized defense.
On the offensive side, the Bulls want to play fast, but not in a hurry. They need to look to get out in transition every rebound, but quickly decide whether they have a very high caliber shot or not, and when they don't, they need to pull it back out and settle into the half court.
Miami kills teams with blocks from behind and turning what looks like a transition play for their opponent into a transition play for themselves. The Bulls aggressively look for transition opportunities, but they should conservatively decide whether to take them once they're on the break.
Rebounding needs to be a team effort
Miami doesn't have a dominating rebounder, but they're a quality rebounding team because Wade and LeBron can do a lot of damage on the glass from the perimeter. Miami typically isn't very aggressive on the offensive glass, but that dynamic may change with Udanis Haslem back playing minutes.
The Bulls are going to need aggressive rebounding from all five positions in rather than just the front court in order to keep their advantage. In particular, those defending Wade and LeBron need to make sure to box out to stop them from charging in.
It's MVP time
No matter how little Bulls defense gives them, no matter how well they shoot. No matter how well they rebound, the Bulls odds of winning rest on the shoulders of one man.
The MVP. Derrick Rose.
Chicago will have to see what the Miami strategy for defending Rose is, and Dwyane Wade is probably their best option. Rose needs to wear him out on offense and let the rest of the Bulls perimeter defenders help him on defense.
If the Heat defend Rose with someone other than Wade, then Rose should crank up the aggressiveness and take it to that guy early and often. When the Heat trap, look for the big man at the free throw line or the open guy in the corner and move the ball quickly and efficiently.
Rose is in a tough spot because he doesn't have a second dominant offensive creator on his team. The burden will fall completely on his shoulders, but he looks ready for it, and while the Bulls don't have another offensive creator, they do have great depth of quality players who can execute with the openings he creates.
I think the Heat win in six, but I think the Bulls can win in seven if they take it that far. That may sound contradictory, but there's a razor thin line between winning and losing in these games. It only takes a couple bounces for them to go Chicago's way for them to take this series, and if they get the deciding game on their home court, I like their mental toughness more than Miami's.
Whomever wins this series is a heavy favorite to win the title as well. I think either team has the defensive capability to defeat the remaining teams out west. Perhaps the Mavericks are the most dangerous threat left to either team because neither the Heat or Bulls have a great answer for Dirk's offense.