Previewing the Eastern Conference semifinals

Previewing the Eastern Conference semifinals
May 6, 2013, 4:00 pm
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MIAMI—Media predictions can often look foolish before the ink’s dry—or in this case, before the post is published—but they certainly have entertainment value.

It doesn’t take an expert to see that the Bulls’ conference-semifinal series against the Heat isn’t favorable to the underdogs, and with their current battered and bruised state—not to mention the fact that the defending champions have had more than a week to rest since dispatching eighth-seeded Milwaukee in the first round—advancing past the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs isn’t an easy proposition, to say the least.

However, it’s not as cut and dry as one might believe.

Aside from the history between the teams—from the 2011 conference finals through the Bulls’ snapping the Heat’s historic 27-game winning streak in this regular season—there are several reasons why the Bulls could make it a battle.

Kirk Hinrich’s injury status doesn’t help matters in the backcourt, as Miami will likely devote plenty of attention to ensuring that instant-offense scorer Nate Robinson doesn’t get off, but Marco Belinelli in the starting lineup—at least until All-Star Luol Deng returns—presents a different dimension offensively, as his ability to function as a primary ball handler and operate effectively in pick-and-roll scenarios allows Robinson to play off the ball.

Relying on that duo to produce offense might have seemed shaky early in the regular season, but the tandem has proved that they can be effective against top defenses, though Belinelli will have his hands full on the defensive end with Dwyane Wade, and point guard Mario Chalmers has to be respected.

Wade’s own health situation is Miami’s only true injury concern and while the Heat have shown that they can be successful without the All-Star at 100 percent, they need him to be at their peak to truly play at an elite level.

Chalmers is a streaky shooter, but is tested in big-game situations, has improved as a decision-maker, is an underrated defender and has found a niche similar to the roles of de facto Bulls point guards like B.J. Armstrong, John Paxson and Steve Kerr, in which he plays off athletic, do-it-all wing players that dominate the ball.

In the frontcourt, second-year swingman Jimmy Butler be crucial, as he will be asked to continue his season-long emergence by defending league MVP LeBron James—if Deng becomes available later in the series, Butler will guard the fellow Marquette product Wade, against whom he’s had some success—as well as contribute on offense.

James isn’t a player who can be completely shut down, so Butler will have to emulate Deng to a degree by at least making the four-time MVP award winner work on every possession, knowing he’ll get help from his teammates, and keep him occupied on the other end of the floor.

Carlos Boozer will be crucial for the Bulls in the series, as he is the team’s only player with a true matchup advantage.

If his aggressiveness as an interior scorer and rebounder from the opening round carries over, then he should be able to dominate his matchup with Udonis Haslem—a player without great size, athleticism or length, things that Boozer can struggle against—and also be an offensive facilitator if Miami opts to double team him.

All-Star centers Joakim Noah and Chris Bosh have vastly different games and although Bosh probably doesn’t get enough credit for what he does for the Heat, Noah’s performance is more important to his team.

Unlike their 2011 matchup, Noah must dominate on the interior as both a rebounder and defensive force, and offensively, he has to replicate his Game 7 heroics against the Nets, looking to get to the basket, if not for his own scoring purposes, then to create opportunities for his teammates.

If the Bulls were fully intact, their bench might be an advantage, but with injuries pushing former reserves into starting roles, it’s a different story.

The likes of backup center Nazr Mohammed, rookie point guard Marquis Teague, swingman Daequan Cook have been thrust into somewhat prominent roles, joining Taj Gibson, while it remains to be seen if erstwhile starter Rip Hamilton gets a chance to get back into the rotation.

Miami counters with Ray Allen, the league’s all-time 3-point shooter, shot-blocking center Chris “Birdman” Andersen, speedy point guard Norris Cole, veteran forward Shane Battier and sharpshooters Mike Miller and Rashard Lewis, among others.

That wouldn’t seem to bode well for the Bulls, but all season, they have made a habit of getting key contributions from unexpected sources, something that shouldn’t change on the big stage.

If the Bulls don’t suffer through too many of their periodic offensive droughts, keep their unforced errors to a minimum, maximize their advantage on the inside—somewhat mitigated by Andersen’s midseason arrival in Miami, as his activity level is comparable to Noah’s, albeit on a lesser scale—and limit the Heat’s transition opportunities, which is easier said than done, they’ll be able to make it a series.

Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra continues to evolve as a tactician, but there perhaps isn’t a better coach in the league at getting the most out of his personnel than Tom Thibodeau.

That, and some inspired play, should be able to steal a game from the Heat, but if the Bulls can’t obtain a split in Miami—a job made tougher by the respective situations of Deng and Hinrich—their odds become dramatically worse.

Therefore, a balance between the Heat’s expected domination and the Bulls coming up with plucky performances to shock the world must be struck.

Factoring in the Bulls’ tenuous health, their lack of rest following the Brooklyn series and Miami’s awareness of their opponents success against them, expect the Heat to once again advance to the conference finals, 4-1.

And yes, that prediction stands even if Derrick Rose makes a miraculous return.