[Thanks to (appropriately) BULLievinginMiami for today's game preview -ed.]
Here we are at the conclusion of the pre-All-Star Break portion of the season, which for the casual basketball fan means they can start watching games from here on out. Unfortunately, us poor schmucks have been watching all season and enduring the frustration. But something pleasant has occurred recently: our beloved Bulls are actually playing well. The defense isn’t particularly better. Out of the last five wins, only twice (DET, PHO) has the opponent reached the century mark on the scoreboard, but this is misleading. The Clippers are awful, and oddly enough, N’awlins is ranks near the bottom in scoring (25th). Coincidentally, the best defensive effort came against Sac-town, which ranks 13th in scoring, and they were held to 11 points below their average. So the defense isn’t much improved, but I think we’ve come to grips with the fact that this team is not going to be a defensive juggernaut. On the other hand, the offense looks smoother. There is more ball movement. The bigs are slashing towards the rim, getting offensive rebounds and easy scores. There just seems to be less of the individual play we saw earlier in the year. This might be in direct correlation to Larry Legend and Drew Gooden not playing, although BG still has some possessions where his contract is obviously doing the thinking. But, for the most part, the offense is looking smoother and the tempo is being pushed. I’m just wondering whether management is attributing this to (gasp!) better coaching, or to the fact our roster is healthy now and some of the younger players are finally playing up to their potential. Who knows, perhaps it a bit of both. Maybe Vinny is learning. I wouldn’t bet on it, though. Either way, I hope this recent trend continues as the Bulls may be getting hot at the right time and might just have a second half surge in them to get in the playoffs.
On to the game. I always get excited when these two teams play because they’re the two teams I’m most familiar with in the league, and I love rubbing it in all my friends’ faces when the Bulls beat them. (You all should have been there to witness the ‘Let’s go, Bulls!’ chant I started with my fellow Bulls fans in a stairwell leaving the arena after Game 4 in ’07. I show no mercy to Heat fans.)
These are two of the youngest rosters in the league, both with rookie coaches and rookie point guards, but their formulas for success are very different. The Heat are notorious for playing tough defense, and though he’s not coaching it anymore, this team has Pat Riley’s fingerprints all over it, and Erik Spoelstra is a good young coach who executes Riley’s philosophy. They also have something we lack: a bonafide star. I have to admit as much as I love my Bulls, Dwyane Wade is far and away my favorite player in the league. Since his rookie season he has had the uncanny ability to take over a game, especially late. Besides Kobe, I think D-Wade is the player I’d most like to take a game-winning shot for my team. So if this game is close late, look out for D-Wade. But what also makes D-Wade dangerous is he is also the distributor on that team. His ability to create his own shot and get to the rim commands so much attention that it usually spaces the floor out for the shooters on the team, mainly Mario Chalmers and Daequan Cook (who is an absolute gunner), and to a lesser extent, James Jones, who has recently returned from missing the first two months with an injury, and Shawn Marion, who can occasionally hit an open three. Speaking of Marion, as soon as he gets the ball in his hand, it’s important that his defender apply heavy ball pressure. All 'The Matrix' is good for is cutting to the basket. He is terrible when he puts the ball on the floor, so it’s key that Deng, Thabo, and Tyrus, who will be the likely defenders assigned to Marion, apply pressure, force him to use his dribble and into some turnovers.
I also want to briefly comment on Chalmers, being that we too have a rookie point guard. Chalmers has impressed and I’m surprised he doesn’t get more pub. In the end, he might be the steal of this draft, besides maybe Brook Lopez. It’s no wonder Riley traded for him in the draft. I repeat, Riley went out of his way, giving up something, to get a second round pick. Chalmers is a smart point guard who can spot up and plays good defense. He’s definitely given Rose a tough time their last two times facing each other. Rose had only 10 points and 3 assists on 3-14 shooting in 38 minutes when these teams played in December. Chalmers also was spectacular in the NCAA championship game last year, hitting the three that sent that game to overtime and won Kansas the title. Riley was on hand to witness that. I’m sure if Miami had the #1 pick, Rose would’ve been it, but I think Riley feels he got the next best thing in Chalmers.
As previously stated, if this game is close late, that’s dangerous for the Bulls. I’m hoping they can get out to an early lead and keep it. The Bulls do have a few things going for them. I think Tyrus and Noah will be trouble for the Heat, whose bigs are non-existent. Udonis Haslem can get in there and get rebounds, but our bigs are longer and more athletic, so the Bulls should win the rebound battle. Also, the Heat are like the Bulls in that they aren’t great on the road, and at this point in the season, D-Wade is probably looking for some help. While the Heat possess the superstar, the Bulls possess a depth the Heat can only dream of. Hopefully the Bulls can wear out Wade by neutralizing everyone else and forcing him to try to do too much. Judging by how the Bulls have been playing lately, I’m thinking they win this game and go into the All-Star Break on a high note, and with momentum going into the second half.
GAMETIME: 6pm CST, TNT, ESPN1000