The Chicago Bulls enter the most critical game left on the schedule with the cloud of Derrick Rose's injury over their head. The team had performed admirably in his absence, but the last game against an elite team without Rose reminded Chicago how much they need him to stay on top of the mountain.
The Oklahoma City Thunder ran out to a 30 point lead against the Bulls without Rose before the teams emptied the benches and the Bulls brought it down to 14 with a few token threes in the final minute by John Lucas.
Miami, having already been victimized by the Roseless Bulls, will not take this team lightly while missing its star player again. The Heat are also coming off a loss to the Celtics and will be about as motivated as you can be to get the win tonight and turn around their late season struggles.
The Bulls have been struggling themselves, losing three of their last five games. They're struggling against teams they simply can't outwork to get the victory and have had issues finding their offense.
Will he or won't he? What will we get if he does?
Derrick Rose is a gametime decision for tonight, and unlikely many other GTD situations, I wouldn't rule him out immediately. K.C. Johnson actually lists him as likely to play on his pregame blurb here, and he was well enough to warm up on his ankle against Boston before declaring it a no go.
With another two days of rest, I'd imagine there's a pretty good shot Rose is ready to go tonight.
However, even assuming he's ready to go, what can we realistically expect from Rose in this game?
Derrick struggled mightily at New York and clearly had not regained the explosiveness he typically plays with. Now we're going to add an ankle that isn't 100% into the mix with a player who's already still looking to find his rhythm and deal with a groin injury which may not be 100% yet either.
Quite frankly, I expect Derrick Rose to have one of those 7/23 for 20 points with five or six turnovers kind of nights. The Heat play tremendous perimeter defense anyway, and Rose is unlikely to be near his best. Derrick could certainly fair better than that if he plays, but my expectation is that there will be some struggles, and there's no reason to panic if there are or predict playoff failure based on anything that happens tonight.
Stop Chris Bosh, stop the Heat
There's a common thread to when the Heat lose games. Chris Bosh plays poorly.
Bosh isn't their best player, but he's their most important player. He's the guy who plays a two man game with both LeBron and Wade in the pick and roll to make it deadly. The Bulls can defend either LeBron or Wade fairly well in isolation. LeBron and Wade lack much of a two man game themselves, so if Bosh struggles, then the Heat are typically running a lot of isolations which can typically be defended reasonably well.
The problem, of course, is that stopping Chris Bosh isn't easy. There are more parameters than simply limiting his output. You need to stop him without double teaming, and without giving up your ability to double team or strong hedge the ball handler on a pick and roll. This means the Bulls need to slow Chris Bosh while still giving Wade/LeBron the majority of their attention. It means crisp and correct defensive rotations and the team playing as a unit. It also probably requires Bosh stopping himself a bit.
For this reason, the Bulls should go heavy on Gibson and light on Boozer in the game. Gibson will give the Bulls the quick athletic rotations Chicago needs and the length and athleticism to block or heavily contest shots that Boozer won't. Carlos has generally struggled to get much done against Chris Bosh on offense anyway, so the Bulls would be well served to use a heavy dose of Gibson.
Own the glass or slow the Heat in transition?
The one area the Bulls should have a big advantage on the Heat is on the inside. If Chicago can dominate the glass then they can play through their shooting struggles and offensive woes by overwhelming the Heat with second chance opportunities. The Bulls should have a nice advantage inside the paint if they work hard.
Unfortunately one problem with attacking the offensive glass with reckless abandon is that it opens up a hole in the transition defense. If Joakim Noah is hustling at the rim trying to grab an offensive rebound and fails the incredibly athletic Heat will already be halfway down the court before he turns around.
The Bulls need to attack the glass. They need to get those offensive rebounds, however, they also need to quickly discern when there is a reasonable chance at an offensive board and when they simply need to get back on defense immediately to stop Miami's deadly transition game.
Can Luol Deng ever slow LeBron?
Watching Deng guard LeBron, I typically think "there's not much more you could ask him to do". Last game he forced LeBron into turnaround, fadeaway, mid-range jumpers all night long. LeBron then calmly sank them all night long on his way to a huge night. I want LeBron taking that shot, because quite frankly, it's probably the least efficient shot you can force him into.
It stops him from pumping up the team with thunderous dunks while also limiting how much he's creating for teammates. He's also unlikely to draw tons of fouls, and that shot is hard as hell to hit. When LeBron is confident, there's little that can be done to slow him though. I agree with pundits that sometimes the game gets into his head, but it never gets in his head against the Bulls.
I think LeBron feels supremely confident in his ability against this team, and it makes it infinitely more difficult to slow him down because of that. I expect Deng to play great defense again, but I also expect LeBron to have a huge night in spite of that fact.
What will Chicago get from Hamilton?
I was psyched to see Rip throw up a monster game for Chicago. However, his monster game was somewhat do to a few touchy foul calls in the ref crack down on both teams that will go uncalled tonight and a bunch of open shots that he'll be unlikely to see against the Heat.
I don't trust that he has enough athleticism to create off the bounce against Wade or LeBron, one of which will likely be guarding him for most of the night. That said, if Rip can keep the ball moving and knock down the open shots he gets, then it will force Miami to rotate quicker, double team less, and put a bunch of pressure on their defense.
I expect Hamilton to make the right basketball play and work hard. Though coming off a high quality game, I'm not ready to jump on the bandwagon just yet. I think it will still take time for him to really get in sync with his teammates and build his timing. It's also worth noting that Hamilton's best as a Bull is still likely to be marred with inconsistency given his age and play over the past few years.
Hopefully Hamilton is playing at a level that adds significant pressure to Wade and the Heat defense, even if he's not knocking down all the shots, if he can get them moving it will create rebounding lanes and opportunities for everyone else.
One seed up for grabs?
If the Bulls win this game, the one seed is all but theirs. If they lose, they'll be in a dog fight for the rest of the year. This is it. This is the game you've been waiting for all season. This is the show down. This is the one that counts. This is the game the Bulls have to go grab.