Are the Chicago Bulls Best Equipped to Take Down the Miami Heat?
LeBron James continues his ascent towards NBA legend, fulfilling the promise of the greatness people saw in him coming out of high school. Having reached the Finals for the third-straight year and as they prepare to defend their crown, followers of the Miami Heat lament one question. Can any team in the league really beat them when it counts?
Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers fail to do the job
More and more people have begun to gain an appreciation for what Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks pulled off two years ago when they wrestled the championship away from James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Those same people fully expected the young and loaded Oklahoma City Thunder to do the same the next year and instead they were brushed away in five games. Then, a year later, another talented young team seemingly well-equipped to not only compete with Miami but beat them couldn't do it. The Indiana Pacers pushed the defending champions to seven games but when it mattered most they were blown out. So the Heat move on to face the San Antonio Spurs and fans are left wondering if anybody in the Eastern Conference can summon the fortitude to stand up to Miami when it matters.
Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau offer solutions
One team that has repeatedly shown they don't fear Miami is the Chicago Bulls. For the second year running the two teams split their season series. Even when they met in the playoffs a gritty Bulls club managed to make the series interesting by stealing game one and nearly doing it again in game five. Unfortunately a case of too few healthy bodies never gave Chicago much hope for an upset. However, given how well they played (James said the closeout game was one of the toughest he'd experienced as a pro) and their prospects for next season, could the Bulls emerge as the favorite to oust Miami?
Like Indiana, their team is built on size in the front court and defensive mindset. However, unlike the Pacers, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau has built a remarkably effective defensive system that has other teams in the league envious. Even James and the Heat players can't help but respect how well Chicago plays their scheme. In fact, against the healthy Pacers they scored less than 90 points once in six games. Against the depleted Bulls they scored less than 90 twice in five. One should imagine what could have happened if Chicago were healthy. That is what fans await next year.
Things look mighty promising by that point. Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich should return from their unfortunate ailments while the big boost will come from getting back point guard Derrick Rose. While his climb back to MVP form will take time, his leadership and offensive boost figures to get the Bulls back in regular contention for best in the East. Throw in rising star Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson from the bench and Chicago seems to have a good, deep team coming together for the 2013-2014 season.
NBA facts lay in the numbers
A big reason for this optimism rests with the numbers game. Like any other league, the NBA can say a lot through them. For example, start with the outlay of each roster. Miami is led by the Big Three of James, Wade and Bosh. By next season James will be approaching 29-years old. Wade turns 32 in January and Bosh is 30 next March. While not "old" by typical standards their hopes longevity aren't as rosy. Meanwhile the Bulls have Rose who is 25 in October, Joakim Noah who turns 29 next February, Luol Deng who turns the same age next April. Their oldest starter is Carlos Boozer who is the same age as Wade, and not nearly as banged up. Toss in the promise of Butler (23) and the approach of Nikola Mirotic from Europe (22) and Miami doesn't have near the advantage they did when the team formed two years ago.
Then there is the Rose impact. With him in the lineup the Bulls averaged 96 points per game and allowed only 88. Without him this season it went to 93 and 93 both ways. That difference can mean so much in tight games. No team understands better what they need to do in order to beat Miami. It wasn't poor play that doomed them in 2011 or this past series. Chicago knows that all they need is a few extra baskets late in games and they have proven time and again they have what it takes to hold down the Heat.
Whether they can find those extra baskets from someone other than Rose is the last remaining key to their mission. Otherwise nothing changes for the Eastern Conference next year.