After so much drama in these playoffs – stunning upsets, unpredictable sweeps, young teams rising, old teams falling – it’s nice to know that some things are going according to plan. The #1 seed Bulls will play the #2 seed Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. The best two teams in the East will battle it out for a spot in the 2011 NBA Finals. The way it should be.
Yes the Celtics departed a little early (more on them in a few days) and had some bad luck with injuries. But no one can deny these two teams have earned it. Rose was the MVP and lead his team to a league-best 62 wins – a mark that seems more incredible the more I think about it. The Heat went through some growing pains as we all thought they would, but over the last month they have looked unbeatable. Both teams are healthy, Rose, Wade and Lebron are firing, and all is set for what could be a classic encounter.
Before the playoffs started I predicted Miami beating the Bulls in 6 in the Conference Finals. Not much has changed since then – if anything, I’m leaning towards making that prediction Miami in 5. And that is more to do with the good I’ve seen in Miami, than any bad I’ve seen in Chicago. The Bulls have been terrific these playoffs. Rose has been a rock and has somehow raised his game from the regular season (he’s averaging 29ppg). But Boozer has been pretty disappointing and didn’t dominate Indiana or Atlanta the way I thought he needed to. He’s shown some sparks, but he’s been a shadow of the Carlos Boozer I’ve seen in past playoffs. In his ’09 and ’10 playoff campaigns Booze averaged 20-13, compared with 12-10 now. I know injuries have slowed him this season, but there’s just no way the Bulls can win a championship getting that kind of production from their second-best player.
The reality is that Noah, not Boozer, has been the Bulls second best player this post-season. He’s been bringing consistent energy on the defensive end and rebounding like a man possessed. He is the one reason I give Chicago hope against Miami, because Noah is the one guy – other than Rose – who can stamp his authority on a ball game and exploit Miami’s weaknesses. We already know Rose is going to win his match up (though I’m curious to see if we Wade gets thrown onto him at some stage), but Noah punishing the Heat on the glass could be the difference in a win or two. As a Pistons fan, I can tell you that Ben Wallace single-handedly used to win us playoff games from mauling opponents on the glass and being everywhere on the defensive end. He would only take 6 shots, but he would dominate. Noah needs to do the same thing to Miami, and I believe he can.
It will be fascinating watching Derrick Rose in this series. For once he will not be the best player on the court, or even the second best. The Heat are the favorites, despite how they performed against Chicago in the regular season. How will Derrick Rose respond to that? How much of his ego will get sucked into all of this? Because you do realise, that if Rose and the Bulls beat Miami, then Derrick Rose can lay claim – unequivocally – to being the best player in the game today. He can be the guy to stop this Wade-Lebron train of dynasty before it even gets rolling. He can be Chicago’s hero, hell, the World’s hero given how much we all hate the Heat. And it’s all deliciously wrapped in the irony that Lebron and Wade could have come to Chicago to play with Rose had they not formed the trinity in South Beach.
Rose won an MVP, yet so many people still think it should have belonged to Lebron or Dwight. The Bulls had the league’s best record, yet they’re still the underdog in this series. We all doubt them. I doubt them. Jim the new Bulls fan even has his doubts. And I can’t recall these things ever happening to an MVP-lead 60-game winning team before, as if it all counted for nothing. How Rose and the Bulls respond to that will teach us a lot about this team’s character.
And here’s where it all doesn’t matter anyway. Because LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are too freaking good.
That you can’t win a championship with just 2 great players, or 2.5 great players (I wonder how Bosh feels about being made into a decimal?) has long been an established unwritten law in the NBA. Your 3rd and 4th guys need to be either All-Stars (think James Worthy, Ray Allen), tough-minded All-NBA defenders/rebounders (think Dennis Johnson, Horace Grant), or clutch veterans who know how to win and are the ultimate glue-guys (think Ron Harper, Robert Horry). There have been a few variations over the years… sometimes you can exchange that 3rd or 4th guy for a really deep and talented bench (ala Houston in the mid-nineties), and sometimes you can exchange the 2 great players for 4 really good ones who are linked by ESP (Detroit in ’04). But for the most part this rule stands true.
The Heat are of course messing with history because Bosh is that 3rd guy (talented but flawed and soft), they have no All-NBA defenders/rebounders, and they have no clutch veterans who can impart words of wisdom in the locker room. They are winning thanks to having the two best perimeter players in the league, who are also two of the best perimeter defenders in the league, AND, who are both smack-bang in the middle of their primes which lets them run non-stop for literally 48 minutes. There’s no one that can keep up with Lebron and Wade and there’s no one they can’t keep up with. They demonstrated that much against the Celtics. Wade chased Ray Allen around screens better than anyone I’ve ever seen, and he still had enough in the tank to thoroughly dominate on the offensive end. Only young MJ and young Kobe could have pulled off that feat.
And it gets worse. See, Boston had the right strategy going into their series against Miami. Their goal was to turn Lebron and Wade into jump-shooters. That is exactly what you need to do against these guys. They are both shaky from long-range – sure they hit big threes from time to time, but it’s never their go-to shot. They both feel more comfortable after a few dribbles and trying to penetrate, rather than rising from the triple-threat position for a fade-away. If you clog the lanes, give them space on the outside and try to make them jump-shooters, you’re not only playing the percentages, but you’re also likely killing any momentum the Heat can build (this Heat team can put points on the board faster than any team I’ve ever seen).
If you didn’t watch the games, you might think Boston failed in that strategy given they lost the series 4-1. But they didn’t fail. They executed that strategy really well, for the most part. So what happened? Lebron and Wade started hitting their jump shots. They were hitting threes (Lebron hit 5 in Game 5). They were hitting fade aways, corner treys, step-backs, you name it, most with a hand in their face. And when those two guys are hitting those kind of shots, its disheartening for the opposition. It threw the Celtics defense into disarray, and it took away their advantage on the inside and on the glass. It means you have to play them closer on the perimeter which just means they’ll blow past you. It puts less pressure on Bosh and it opens up the floor for Miami’s three-point shooters. When LeBron and Wade are shooting like that, there is nothing that can stop the Miami Heat from being 2001 NBA World Champions.
And that is ultimately why I tipped them to win it all. The only way to stop them is if you’ve got two All-NBA defenders to throw at them and you can live with single coverage. Chicago do not have that luxury. Neither does Dallas or Oklahoma. Interestingly, the premier pair of perimeter stoppers in this league right now, is probably Shane Battier and Tony Allen, and that team is still alive. But you’d be crazy for tipping Memphis to make the Finals… right?
Miami will win this series because they have the two best players on the floor, and because the strengths of those two players makes up for their teams weaknesses. They will win because as great as Chicago’s defensive system is, there is no defensive system in this universe that can stop a charging Lebron James and Dwyane Wade. Chicago are a hell of a team and I hope they make this series close, but the only way that happens is if Lebron and Wade both fall into a slump or choke late in games. And watching them so far this post-season, I don’t see that happening.
Miami in 5.
I’ve been wrong before, and for what it’s worth, I really hope I’m wrong again.