[Note by your friendly BullsBlogger, 03/09/09 4:50 PM CDT: Thanks to wjb1942 for today's game preview -ed.]
There aren't many memories from the past few seasons as sweet as that '06-07 opening round playoff sweep over the Miami Heat. It's definitely bittersweet to think back on those super-giddy days of success and endless potential. How could we have known then what the next couple of years held in store?
Fast forward to tonight, with the Bulls in Miami to face the Heat. (This is the bitter part of that bittersweet thing, in case you weren't with me!) The Bulls (29-34) currently have a very tenuous hold on the 8th spot in the east, just 1/2 game up on Milwaukee and a game up on New Jersey and Charlotte. Miami (33-29) is currently holding down the 5th seed. This is the 3rd meeting between the two teams this season, with Miami winning the first two. The Bulls were pretty soundly trounced in Game 1, losing 77-90 @ Miami - to get a sense of how bad it was, ESPN named Aaron Gray the Bulls top performer that night. In a sense, that game was the beginning of the mid-season lull, as the Bulls were just 2 games below .500 going into the game but went 5 and 12 over the next month. The Bulls lost to Miami for a second time this season roughly one month ago in the painful Thabo-gate affair, dropping a 93-95 home decision after Thabo threw away an in-bounds pass while Derrick Rose sat on the bench in the closing seconds.
Heat star Dwyane Wade has been playing out of his mind lately, averaging 37.8 points on 56.3% shooting (52.4% from 3) over the past 5 games, all while throwing in 11 assists and 7 rebounds. Apparently, then, the Band-Wade was not the source of his basketball super-powers. This could pose a problem for the Bulls, as one of the guys the team has thrown at him defensively in the past now plays for the OKC Thunder, while the other is at less than 100% after sustaining a bruised quadriceps in last Friday's game. If Kirk can't go, or is ineffective with the thigh injury, someone else is going to have to step up on the defensive end.
The Bulls do have one other tiny little problem - this current incarnation of the team has yet to win a road game together. The last road win for the Bulls was at Milwaukee, before new additions Brad Miller, John Salmons, and Tim Thomas were eligible to play. Since the new guys suited up, the team has gone 4 and 4 - 4 home wins and 4 road losses. As has been pointed out many times around here, the most frustrating part is that the home wins include victories over quality teams Orlando and Houston, while the road losses include a blowout at bottom-dwelling Washington as well as losses to other teams with similar or worse records than the Bulls. Tonight starts a 3-game road trip, so the Bulls' stay in the 8th spot could be very short lived if they don't reverse this home=W, road=L trend pretty darn quick.
With injuries, what once was a near-unworkable glut of guys needing minutes at various positions has turned into a tight, mostly 7-man rotation of late. The guys getting the vast majority of minutes are all playing pretty well from an individual box score kind of view, but are still putting it together as a cohesive team. However, there's no question the game results have been better of late, with a positive margin of victory of +2.88 over the last 25% of the games, and against a decent strength of schedule according to Hollinger's formula.
It will be interesting to see what Vinny opts for tonight if Kirk can't play, with Luol stil out and trying to decide what to do with that stress fracture, and Tim Thomas still hurting and ineffective when he tried to go last Friday for a few minutes. After the starters at the 1-2-3 spots, the available healthy players consist of Lindsey Hunter and Anthony Roberson, who have played a total of 81 and 41 minutes respectively in all of 2009. Presumably Derrick, Ben, and John will play big minutes, but Vinny may be forced to go big at times and play Tyrus at the 3 - and I'm just not sure how well that will work agains the Heat. I always pick the Bulls to win, no matter how ridiculous it seems on paper - but they're going to need some things to go their way tonight. Hopefully Kirk can get loose at least enough to give the backcourt starters a breather in the first half.
Regardless of what you think about the Bulls being better off making the playoffs or playing the draft lottery, all the upcoming games are important - not only Bulls' games, but those of the teams around them in the standings as well. If the Bulls could get on a hot streak and Philly and Detroit slide a bit, maybe the team moves up into 7th or 6th? If the teams nipping at the Bulls heels (hooves?) get hot and pass the Bulls, then records start to come into play for lottery odds. Personally, I'm cheering for them to make the playoffs and get that experience for the younger guys, but whatever your position it's time to start scoreboard watching. Tonight's Pistons v. Magic matchup could get the Bulls within 2 games of the 6th spot with a Bulls win and a Pistons loss. A Bulls loss drops the team back into a tie for 8th with Milwaukee, but with the Bulls holding the tie-breaker by virtue of a 3-1 record against the Bucks this season.
Blogging with the Enemy:
Peninsula is Mightier - Ugh It Live! is already over there trash talking. ;)
Ira Winderman - don't ask me why, but I always get a kick out of reading whatever he comes up with to say about the Bulls, and about the Heat, especially when the Bulls win - it goes back to reading the coverage of the Bulls sweep of Miami in the playoffs.