Of all the subplots in Miami’s heroic 83-80 comeback victory over the Chicago Bulls in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Finals, the LeBron James versus Derrick Rose individual matchup may have been the juiciest.
The confrontation between the most talented player against the most valuable one indeed proved memorable, as LeBron issued a royal decree and executed Rose on the spot.
Consider the final 10 minutes of the game:
- Rose finished the game hitting only one of his final eight field goal attempts with no assists, two turnovers, and one trip to the line (which included a damning choke job) during that stretch.
- LeBron’s strength, length, and quickness eliminated Rose’s attempts at playing screen/roll offense, plus Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem both played excellent screen defense, never allowing Rose to turn the corner.
- The three times Rose was able to get a half-step on James, Haslem and Bosh were again there to contest misses at the rim.
- When Rose overpenetrated and foolishly jumped in the air to pass late in the fourth, Dwyane Wade struck into the passing lane for a key interception.
- When Rose tried to pitch a throwback pass to Kurt Thomas on a screen/fade, LeBron deflected the pass and stole it.
- Rose also frequently dribbled the ball atop either wing aimlessly, killing time and forcing the Bulls to try and beat the buzzer far too often.
- While Rose’s offense was ineffective, his defense was boneheaded.
- He was late recovering to LeBron in transition, and provided a tepid closeout. LeBron calmly sank a three over him.
- Another poor closeout saw Rose nicking Wade’s elbow on a three-pointer, count it, plus the foul.
- He hacked LeBron across the arm on a layup attempt resulting in one made free throw.
- A questionable call when defending Wade in transition led to another plus-one.
- He was also blitzed by Wade for a layup, though his positioning was respectable, and the fault lie more with Thomas’ inability to alter shots after rotating.
- Still, Rose had a chance to undo most of the damage with two free throw attempts with 27 seconds to go and the Bulls down two. After making the first freebie, he clanged away the second freebie, as well as Chicago’s season.
Meanwhile, LeBron James was awe-inspiring, both with his clutch shooting, and with his lock and chain defense.
- Besides the defensive plays listed above, LeBron also deflected a Thomas pass to a cutting Rose for a steal.
- James boxed out on the glass and grabbed three defensive rebounds.
- After Thomas tried to flop his way into a charge on a LeBron drive, James sank two free throws.
- A snake dribble around a early offense wing screen/roll led to a foul and free throw.
- After a sloppy dribble, LeBron was fouled after diving for a loose ball, earning another free throw.
- Down eight with two minutes to go, LeBron caught an open pass and sank a critical three.
- Down three with a minute to go, LeBron brought the ball up, used a wing screen by Haslem to shed Brewer, and hit a clutch triple.
- With the game tied and 30 seconds to go, LeBron whittled the shot clock down and hit a pull up jumper at the key to give the Heat the lead.
- LeBron stayed with Rose and blocked his desperation heave at the buzzer to clinch the series.
Whereas Rose took advantage of unique circumstances to garner the regular season MVP, LeBron used Game Five as a platform as to why he’s the best player on the planet. In doing so, he continued to silence his critics over the course of the series. He silenced both critics of his jumper and of his heart with back-breaking jumper after back-breaking jumper. He silenced critics of his defense and of his intensity by stymieing Luol Deng, and shutting down Rose at critical junctures. And he silenced critics of his uncoachability and inability to work within an offense by diligently executing Miami’s corner screen system and making the right decisions all series long.
Bravo, a performance fit for a king!
Of course he had help.
While Wade was largely too casual and ineffective on offense and made several screen defense breakdowns over the course of the game, he scored on several broken plays late, and nailed a pivotal four-point play during the crux of Miami’s comeback.
Chris Bosh’ screen defense was exceptional, his jump shooting was true, his rotations were alert, and his pump fakes were convincing. Removed of the burden of carrying a team, Bosh has joined Wade as excellent princes in his kingdom.
Joel Anthony’s defense was Grade A, and he even managed to hit a driving layup plus foul over the inept Carlos Boozer.
Udonis Haslem committed a surprising number of defensive mistakes and couldn’t drop the ball in the ocean—0-5 FG—but his defense late influenced several Bulls misses at the rim.
Mike Miller made plays with his passing, his cutting, his shooting, and his rebounding.
The Heat team defense was exceptional, suffocating the life out of the Bulls with pinpoint rotations, constant energy, and perpetual hustle. No surprise a Pat Riley managed team would be in such great conditioning despite exerting such high effort.
Miami’s baseline rotations were always a step ahead, often because Miami’s corner defenders on the weak side of Chicago’s side screen/rolls could ignore the player, trust their ability to close out, and sell out on hard rotations.
Also, give credit to Eric Spoelstra for getting his three superstars to buy in completely to his defensive philosophy, and for running an effective corner screen offense using Bosh as a safety valve usually at the opposite high post. Spoelstra’s virtues of patience, trust, professionalism, and attention to detail have all paid off so far.
Aside from Rose’s individual collapse, the Bulls played an admirable game and season unbefitting such a dismal collapse.
Chicago’s own defense was more impressive than even Miami’s, with Chicago’s wings forcing Wade into a dismal shooting game, Luol Deng hounding LeBron into a rough first 40 minutes, and precise rotations of their own limiting Miami’s open looks at the basket.
Chicago again had some success on the offensive glass, converting second shot opportunities into easy scores even after Miami’s initial defense stifled them.
Chicago didn’t overload its defense as severely to stop LeBron on the strong side, leaving fewer openings on diagonal passes from the wing or baseline to a wide-open Bosh at the elbow.
Kurt Thomas and Ronnie Brewer each made critical fourth-quarter offensive plays to provide a modicum of offense, while Thomas’ board work was also valiant.
However, several fatal flaws did Chicago in.
- Whereas in general, Chicago’s defense was of the highest order, Carlos Boozer was a weak link. His quick hands earned some steals in Miami, but his habitual soft closeouts, poor lateral movement, and absent rotations gifted Miami with too many easy points.
- Likewise, Boozer tucked his tail between his legs on the offensive end—1-6 FG.
- Chicago’s defenders too often lacked discipline on Miami’s head fakes.
- Luol Deng had trouble creating his own offense, and his high dribble prevents him from making plays in traffic.
- Kyle Korver couldn’t make up for his poor defense with shooting.
- Before Rose’s choke job, Brewer also missed a free throw.
Still, considering Chicago’s approach to the game, and their quantum leap from last season to this season, the year can only be considered as an unmitigated success.
The question becomes, what do the Bulls need to do in future years to supplant the Heat?
Derrick Rose’s character assassination as a point guard is partly overblown by the media. True, he’s not as good as LeBron James, and all his minor flaws were ripped open to the world by LeBron—Rose is still a poor decision maker in traffic and makes the incorrect decision an inordinate number of times. Rose is also often out of control on his drives, leaping up into his shots way too far from the basket. Rose’s jump shot still doesn’t have enough arc and is unreliable. He also doesn’t have great vision and is prone to careless defensive mistakes.
Still, the comparisons to Russell Westbrook are largely invalid because Rose will run an offense, often making the correct trigger pass, cutting away from the ball along the baseline, and then coming back to the ball after initial early offense sequence is run. Rose seldom aborts plays simply to clear out or screen/roll the same way Roes does.
In these respects, Rose is more advanced as a point guard. He seldom forces bad shots, and plays passable on-ball defense.
What Rose needs to work on is his vision and his decision-making. Elite defenses are able to capitalize on Rose’s bad habits in the lane, and his relative lack of vision results in missed open teammates. Rose also has to work on his focus at both ends, particularly the defensive end. Finally, few things alleviate choke-itis except self-confidence, trust in one’s self, and alleviated pressure. A better supporting cast could do wonders for Rose, but the performance could also become self-prophesizing.
Luol Deng is a definite keeper thanks to his defense, his versatility, and his range, but he’s not a creative enough handler to be a secondary scorer. In a perfect world, he’s a third option, meaning the Bulls need to bring in an elite scorer.
Carlos Boozer was supposed to be that guy, but as his performances against the Lakers and now the Heat will indicate, he’s an offensive coward against length, and too irresponsible on defense to make up for it. In a perfect world Boozer would be shipped out, but his recently signed expensive contract and poor play make that possibility extremely unlikely.
While the Bulls two-guards are all acceptable rotation players, none is a difference maker at a championship level. Two of them should be shipped out, and a more capable playmaker brought in.
Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Omer Asik are all young, athletic defenders, while Noah doubles as a great passer. All have value, but only surrounding a dreadnaught post scorer, which Boozer is not.
As a fifth big man in a four-big rotation, Kurt Thomas should also be welcomed back, though his defense is a notch below his young thoroughbred counterparts.
C.J. Watson is passable because of his ball-pressure and his shooting, but makes too many mistakes with the ball.
In other words, the Bulls are extremely close—but those final pieces are often the hardest pieces to acquire.
As for the Heat, they’re also close to fulfilling the expectations they set for themselves when Bosh and James joined Wade last summer. With their ferocious defense, boundless energy, and star-powered scoring, the Heat are four wins away from NBA divinity.