Sunday, May 15, 2011

Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Bulls vs. Heat


Today is the day most of us have been waiting for since the start of the playoffs: Bulls vs. Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. I don't know about basketball fans in general, but as a Heat fan.. the butterflies are already here. I'm so amped up for this series the anticipation has interrupted my ability to sleep (If I can't sleep, I know LeBron can't UPDATE: As I'm writing this LeBron James himself shows everyone we're psychically connected.. Okay we're not.). I'm confident the Heat will pull out the series, but there's much more doubt than I felt going into the series against the Celtics. The Bulls are a pretty talented team, if maybe a little too deep and not top heavy enough to get it down this late in the playoffs. It should be a very competitive series, but possibly a little boring to those without a rooting interest. Now everybody and their siblings have written an article about what they think the keys are, regardless I'm going to throw another one into the fire! Well, let's get to it!

Hell, yeah!

I'm going to venture somewhat off the beaten path with my keys and sometimes venture down 42nd St in NYC. I think by now we all understand that Boozer and Bosh need to show up for their teams to have success. So I'm going to skip that one. The four keys that I'm going to be watching for are 1) Will the Bulls run isolation or pick and roll sets? 2) Can the Heat stay competitive on the defensive boards? 3) Which teams shooters will hit shots? 4) Which coach will win the battle of the rotations?

1) Will the Bulls run isolation or pick and roll sets?

According the Synergy Sports in the regular season, the Bulls ran isolation (iso) sets 9.1% of the time and ran the pick and roll (pnr) 19.4%. In the first round against the Pacers, the Bulls ran nearly the same percentage of iso (9.9), but slightly more pnr (22.7) Against the Hawks, however, they ran less iso (8.2) and much more pnr (26.3). It seems to me when looking at this that the further the Bulls go in the playoffs the more the Bulls are putting the ball into Derrick Rose's hands and asking him to make something happen. (Iso+pnr increased from 28.5% to 32.6 against the Pacers to finally 34.5 against the Hawks). The increased pnr calls haven't hurt its effectiveness though. They scored .88 points per possession (ppp) against the Hawks off pnrs vs. .85 in the regular season.

The reason this is important is because the Heat have been one of the best defensive teams against the pnr all season (6th best at .84ppp allowed) and that success has been turned up to 11 so far this postseason. The Heat have the 2nd best pnr defense during the playoffs yielding only .71ppp (#1 pnr defense was the NO Hornets, who played the Lakers who rarely run pnr sets. So I'd feel comfortable saying the Heat have had the best pnr defense in the playoffs.). Some of this is due to Boston not being a very strong pnr team, but the majority of it is Joel Anthony and Chris Bosh.

So here's the question the Bulls need to answer: Do we stick with the pnr, which seems to be working, and risk getting shut down by the the Heat's great pnr defense? Or do we increase our isolation sets?

If Mike Bibby is out there, running pnrs bails out the Heat defense. If the Bulls put Rose on an island with Mike Bibby, that spells disaster for the Heat. It will either lead to a foul on Bibby or someone will have to leave their man to help allowing the Bulls to get open threes or easy dunks/layups. At that point the Heat will either have to put Chalmers in or switch to a zone, which Spo will choose the former more than likely. The possibility for the chess match is what makes this an important key to watch for me.

2) Can the Heat stay competitive on the defensive boards?

The Bulls were the 4th best offensive rebounding team in the league at 29.4% (for context that's about 3.5% better than average). The Heat, however, were the 4th best defensive rebounding team at 75.5% (~2% better than average). This sounds like a great match up. However, it's much worse than Heat fans think. In the last two meetings between the Bulls and Heat, the Heat's defensive rebounding rate dropped to around 70%, while the Bulls offensive rebounding rate stayed about the same at 30%. The Bulls had 23 offensive rebounds in those two games. The Heat can't let that happen, and the Bulls need to make sure it continues. I'm not saying the Heat need to beat the Bulls on the boards, but they need to keep it close and limit the Bulls second chance opportunities. I believe they can do this, but I'm not super confident. I completely expect the Bulls to out rebound the Heat. I just want the Heat to keep it within 5.

3) Which teams shooters will hit shots?

In the regular season the Bulls spot up 20% of the time for .95ppp. In the playoffs however, they spot up 17.5% of the time for .97ppp. From 3pt range, Korver is shooting 47% and Bogans is shooting 49%. Those are issues for the Heat, and they haven't been very good at stopping perimeter shooters. 11th worst in the playoffs at 1.04 ppp allowed (In the regular season, however, they were #3 at .92ppp allowed. I'm going to chalk that up to playing the Celtics in round 2.) The Heat will allow Bogans to shoot threes and make him beat them, but they can't let Kyle Korver get going in this series. The man has ice in his veins, and has hit a few big threes against the Heat this season already.

The Heat aren't sitting as pretty as the Bulls. During the regular season, the Heat were lights out on spot ups #6 with 1.04ppp and it accounted for 22% of their offense. During the post season, however, they're still shooting a lot of spot ups with it accounting for 21% of their possessions, but they're only converting .93ppp. Needless to say, they've been struggling. They're going to need Bibby, who's shooting 23% from 3 in the playoffs, to wake up. He shot 45% in the regular season. What happened to that guy? It's like he woke up one day and forgot how to shoot. He can't defend.. If he can't shoot, why even bother playing him? I realize you need to play somebody minutes, but move Wade to point and play James Jones at the 2 more. Bibby can't be on the court and be a defensive and offensive liability. Chalmers and Jones, however, are both shooting at or near their season percentages, 33% and 44% respectively. All I'm going to ask from those two is to have confidence in their shots, regardless of whether it goes in or not. Just keep shooting.

The spot up shots, whether 3s, by Korver or Jones, or 2s, by Boozer or Bosh, are going to be super important. Both teams need to hit these shots consistently to open the floor up for their slashers. I'd say it's more important for Miami because Chicago will just pack the paint and force Wade and LeBron to shoot jumpers or run into brick walls. Whereas with Rose, he's quick and slippery enough to get through whatever walls the Heat can build in front of the rim if they Bulls aren't making shots, at least he can do this with more consistency than Wade and LeBron.

4) Which coach will win the rotation battle?

This battle is all Spoelstra versus Thibodeau. Both coaches are stubborn, and neither wants to change their rotations. So whichever coach is willing to adjust minutes/starters/halftime lineups quickest, will probably be the victor of this series.

The Bulls' players are very position specific. By that I mean, Noah almost exclusively plays the 5, Boozer the 4, Deng is their most versatile player he can play the 3 and 4, etc... That makes Thibodeau's job somewhat easy. His toughest decisions are who to play with whom, and when to play those line ups.

The Heat, however, are full of versatile players, but also lack very position specific players. This means the Heat can do a lot of different stuff, which can be both very good and very bad. Spoelstra has spent the better part of the entire season fiddling with line ups. Some of this is because of injuries. Some of this is because he's got a new roster and he's figuring out how the pieces fit. And somewhat related, some of this is just because he can. LeBron James can legitly play the PG, SG, SF, and PF possessions and can play C depending on the size of the opposing center. Wade can play the 1 and 2. Bosh can play the 4 and 5. This leads to a ridiculous amount of combinations that can work and be successful. Let's run through a few:

Wade/Jones/James/Bosh/Anthony

This has been the Heat's go to closing line up. The questions here are only who guards Wade and who guards Jones? How effectively can Derrick Rose guard Wade? How much will either player have left on offense when they're having to guard each other? Does Thib take a chance and put Rose on Jones instead to save him for offense? Probably, but Jones is 6'9 and Rose is 6'3. More chess moves to think about.

Chalmers/Wade/Jones/James/Bosh

This is the Heat's ultra-small line-up. They used it against the Sixers a bit in the first round. There's no guarantee they use it against the Bulls, but if they do, does Thibs match the Heat with a small line up? Or does he stay with his big line up. Staying with his normal line up would probably put Boozer on James Jones, since you don't want Boozer on James. Or conversely they could move Noah on James and Boozer on Bosh and put Deng on Jones. But I doubt this is ideal for them either. If they go small, their small line up wouldn't be anywhere near as talented as the Heat's small line-up. Thibs would have to pick his poison. Take the chance putting Boozer on James, where he gets torched defensively, or put him on Jones, where he sits on the 3 point line away from defensive rebounds. This does offer advantages for the Bulls on offense, however. Can James guard Boozer? Not sure, but he did an okay job on Garnett in their limited match ups. I'm just intrigued by the potential match ups this line up provides, and how Thibs would respond.

Rose/Korver/Deng/Gibson/Noah(Asik)

Thibs has used this line up to close a few games recently. What would Spo use against this? Does he go to his normal Wade/Jones/James/Bosh/Anthony line up? Or does he try to go unconventional and force Gibson to guard James or Jones by playing Chalmers/Wade/Jones/James/Bosh?

The coach who has the best answers to these questions will win the coaches battle, and that battle might be the most important of them all. We've seen Spoelstra resistant to change. It took him far too long to start Joel Anthony over Ilgauskas for instance. Every game in this ECF will be important, and any mistakes will be costly. Both coaches will have to make changes and make them quickly otherwise, it might end up being too late to make a difference.

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Anyway, like them or not, these are my keys to the series and what I'm interested in watching for over the next several games. My heart wants the Heat to sweep, but, for the sake of non-Heat fans and cause I'm too rational, I think the Heat take it in 6 games. And move four wins away from another celebration like this....

Smells like victory!

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