Saturday, May 14, 2011

NBA Eastern Conference Finals preview

By Rick Morris

While the Miami-Chicago series has the ring of newness on the surface – with the Bulls back in the East finals for the first time since the last hurrah of the Jordan years in 1998 and Miami coming large in the playoffs for the first time since their ’06 championship – echoes of the recent past reverberate all through this matchup.

^ While LeBron James and Dwyane Wade crowed over finally getting past Boston after years of heartbreak, the architect of the Celtic defensive system that throttled them both, Tom Thibodeau, relocated to Chi-Town in the last offseason and now heads up the Bull braintrust that is trying to replicate those feats.

^ During LeBron’s free agency circus last offseason, the Bulls were compelled if for no other reason than public pressure to make an overture. But unlike all other teams in the mix, they preserved their own dignity in the process as owner Jerry Reinsdorf told him his days of letting the posse run the show would be over and superstar Derrick Rose refused to make a phone call begging him to come play with him. Were Reinsdorf and Rose right that they could win and keep their self-respect at the same time? Imagine how chapped Pat Riley will be if that path proves viable.

^ Some of the most prominent players in this series have already been to the conference finals: Wade, James, Bibby, Z, Udonis Haslem, Eddie House, Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver.

While everyone regards Chicago as being even more vulnerable to the offensive top-heaviness tag than Miami due to their supreme reliance on MVP Derrick Rose, the stats show that Chicago’s three highest scorers indeed posted a collective average of 59.9 PPG this season to 70.9 for the “Big Three.” Nevertheless, the Bulls were only outscored as a whole by an average of 3.5 PPG by the Heat this year, indicating that the Chicago role players are more dependable and consistent.

And the Bull shooters are likely to get way more second-chance opportunities than the ones from South Beach, inasmuch as Chicago notched 967 offensive rebounds this year to Miami’s 790. Ironically, following this path to victory would be shades of the early Bull dynasty, in which Horace Grant was arguably the real MVP of the key playoff wins over Cleveland by giving Jordan and Pippen so many second chances.

While so many pundits dismiss Chicago’s 3-0 regular season record against Miami as meaningless – LeBron was injured for one of the games and all of them were breathtakingly close – it cannot be argued that the team from the Windy City is poised like few others to exploit Miami’s donut-hole weakness down low. The Heat do not have a black hole for offense at the 4 and 5 spots due to the skills of Chris Bosh, but little aside from scoring at the 4 comes from these two spots combined thanks to his softness and the lack of quality depth on the blocks.

In a series likely to feature predominantly low-scoring tight contests, Miami’s weakness at the “muscle spots” looks likely to loom large. Certainly, Vegas is buying the hype about Miami notwithstanding the winless head-to-head record, Chicago’s home-court advantage, and their new head coach who has traditionally owned the space between James and Wade’s ears. The Heat are valued at an average around -200. But in the aftermath of the historic embarrassment Thibodeau inflicted on James in last year’s playoffs – punctuated by accusations of quitting that have not abated to this day – the benefit of the doubt for Miami seems ill-placed in light of the glaring frontcourt mismatch. If that seems biased coming from a lifelong Cavs fan, so be it, because that is my assessment. Chicago over Miami in 6 (picks are 5-3 in the first round and 3-0 in the second round so far) and Dallas over Chicago in 6 or Chicago over Oklahoma City in 6 in the Finals.

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