The 2011 Eastern Conference finals features one of the NBA’s marquee match-ups in quite some time, pitting the last two MVPs against each other, two of the summer’s most talked about teams in the famous free agency chase, and two teams who have played each other three times in the regular season and came away with a difference of just eight points total in the three games.
The experts and pundits have made their decisions and seem pretty split. Some think the Bulls will win, some think the Heat will win. Let’s take a look at some of the key questions in the series:
How Will the Heat Defend Derrick Rose?
The Heat have three options when it comes to defending Derrick Rose: put Mario Chalmers / Mike Bibby on him, put Dwayne Wade on him, or a mix of the two.
Chalmers has developed into a slightly-above-average defensive point guard who did a decent job of shutting down Rajon Rondo in Round Two. But, he also struggled against Philly’s Jru Holliday in Round 1 (14.2 points, 5.6 assists per game) , a guard similar to Rose who relies mostly on his quickness to get around defenders. Bibby, on the other hand, was never a defensive threat when he was younger, let alone in this, his 13th NBA season.
The issue with putting Dwayne Wade on Rose is debating how much the Heat want Wade running around on both ends of the court. Wade proved that he has the energy and endurance to chase someone around the court the way he had to fight through two or three screens per possession as he did against Boston’s Ray Allen. The risk for Wade guarding someone like Rose -- someone who handles the ball on every possession and doesn’t rely on someone to pass it to him like Allen-- is that one or two early Rose drives could result in some early foul trouble for Wade. While the Heat still have LeBron, the game’s best player, Wade has proved himself to be more important throughout the playoffs. Which leads us to...
Can anyone slow down Dwayne Wade?
LeBron may be the most talented player on the planet, but Dwayne Wade is playing the best right now. If there’s anyone the Bulls fear of getting hot in this series, it has to be Wade. Since winning his first title five years ago, Wade has been forced to carry undermanned and legitimately bad teams into the playoffs every year, and now this year-- his first in five years where he has a legitimate title shot-- you can tell he wants (and maybe needs) another title.
Wade is averaging a 26.2 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.0 assists during this playoff run, while often times being the second option on the offensive end. He has proven throughout his career that he doesn’t care how he gets to the basket, how many people hit him on his way, or anything: he will get his points at the line.
For a Chicago team that will force him to take contested three’s and will foul him on every drive, there’s no player who has a better set of tools to beat the Bulls than Wade.
Chicago will also have no bones about using their depth to slow down Wade. They have Keith Bogans, Ronnie Brewer, and Kyle Korver, who each have six fouls and who (with the exception of Korver) all play above average defense on the perimeter. Can the Bulls slow down Wade? They will have to if they have any chances of winning.
Can LeBron maintain his hot shooting streak?
If LeBron James has one weakness in his game, it’s the mid-to-long-range jump shot. When he is hitting that shot, he seems to be unstoppable. When he’s not, well, he still makes an impact on the game, but he tends to become less aggressive, and often defers to Wade or Bosh for offensive production.
This playoff run though, James has been great, culminating in a 33 point performance in Boston, where he went 5-for-7 in three pointers and hit Miami’s two big three’s to put them ahead. He scored the final 10 points against Boston and hit them with everything he had down the stretch. It was the first time I can remember LeBron taking over in a must-win game, and that scares me as a Bulls fan.
But can James maintain his hot shooting? In this series, he’ll have Luol Deng guarding him, someone who is as familiar with anyone in the league outside of Paul Pierce (and remember Deng is seven years younger, two inches taller, and much quicker than Pierce). Deng’s length and speed can slow James down, and the Bulls’ renowned team defense will likely clog the lane, forcing James to shoot jumpers.
Will Rose Reach the 42-Club?
The 42-Club was the subject of a column written by Bill Simmons in 2006 about how we needed to frame Dirk Nowitzki’s stellar 2006 playoff run. The premise is simple: add together the averages for points, rebounds, and assists for the playoffs (at least 13 games) and if the total is above 42, then that player is in the running for The Pantheon of playoff performances. The only names on that list: Michael Jordan (6x), Shaquille O’Neal (4x), Larry Bird (4x), Moses Malone (2x) Magic Johnson (2x), Karl Malone (2x), Hakeem Olajuwon (2x), Tim Duncan (2x), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, and Dirk Nowitzki.
Heading into the series through 11 games, Rose (only 22, mind you) is averaging 41.4.
Clearly, he’s Chicago’s most important piece to victory. If he has games like Game 3 in first-round series against Indiana, where he shot 4-18 but ended up with 23 points, he’s not leading the Bulls to many victories. However, if we’re seeing games like Game 4 in the Atlanta series, where he scores 44 points on 27 shots, then the Bulls begin looking like they could be favorites in a series against the league’s best two players.
Who are the X-Factors?
So who is going to win this series?
Going into the season, I was higher than most on the Bulls, even predicting they’d be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference (proof!). The problem? I thought the Heat would be the best.
And the Heat might be the best. They’ve got the two best players in the league, one in Wade who already has a championship being The Man on a team with another Hall of Famer (Shaq in ‘06), and the other who has scores to settle all across the map (Is he clutch? Can he deliver? Is he all hype?).
As the previously mentioned Simmons put it, this series can be boiled down to the fundamentals of constructing a team. Is it better to get a couple stars (three, if you include Chris Bosh) and just find a bunch of guys to fill in the rest of the minutes, or is it better to find a team where everyone buys into a system, has a guy that can shoot the big shots, and role players who buy into the system by performing their specific roles?
Assuming the questions above are answered with 1) Bibby/Chalmers are guarding Rose, 2) the Bulls can slow down (note: not stop) Wade, 3) James’ shooting cools down a bit, and 4) the Bulls come ahead on two out of the three X-Factors, then I say the Bulls win in six.
Assuming not all of those answers are on point, this is a well matched enough series to where I can say I’m looking forward to every game, and in my opinion all seven games will be down to the wire. And I’m looking for the Bulls to come away with the win in Chicago in Game 7.