Bulls vs. Heat: Showdown for the top of the Eastern Conference (Game Preview #59)

[Thanks to 'BULLieving in Miami' for today's game preview. Game thread at 7. I'll be a the UC, hopefully resisting live-tweeting too much and instead doing that cheering thing. Go Bulls. -yfbb]

At the risk of being a jinx, I'll just say I HOPE this is the preview to the preview (next Thursday) of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals (sometime in late May). yfBB already did some of the groundwork in his pre-preview to this game preview, and at this point how much can really be said about chasing the #1 seed that hasn't already been said. Even though the Heat have lost 2 out of their last 3 home games, they are still an impressive 24-4 at home and thus makes getting home court advantage in a possible playoff matchup that much more important in this viewer's eyes. So that's one thing to be said about this game.

Now, as far as a gauge of where each team is at the moment, oddly it seems as though both teams are in flux either due to injuries or general sucktitude (I'm looking at you, Joel Anthony). For the Bulls, Rip did well against the Knicks and hopefully this is a sign of him starting to find a rhythm after returning from injury a few games ago. Rose is a game-time decision (what's new), though I get the feeling he will be out there on the floor tonight. Besides the injuries, the Bulls are a team trying to rediscover their identity. Sure they still do the things they do well (rebounding, defense) but now how do they incorporate their MVP back into the fold after being out for a crucial stretch during the second half of the season when teams start to solidify themselves.

Obviously they are better with Rose on the floor; no one will argue that. It just seems as though the team got accustomed to playing a certain style while Rose was out and now must strike the delicate balance between "Rose-watching" and plugging him into the fluid ball movement they developed while he was out. It's odd, really. I get mixed feelings from Bulls fans. Not too long ago many of us seemed bored of the regular season and were just counting the days until the playoffs began, but now there's a perception that this team needs to get healthy now and use this remaining schedule to find their groove and thus the playoffs can wait a little longer. We'll just have to see.

On to the Heat. If we as Bulls fans think our team has some stuff to figure out, the Miami Heat are a whole other story. Recently acquired Ronny Turiaf seems to have supplanted Joel Anthony in the Heat's lineup, having started the last 5 games and Anthony's minutes diminishing to the point of a DNP on Tuesday against Boston. They do lose some defense without Anthony, but Ronny balances that with a bit more competence on offense and still gives good effort. And since the Heat like using the Bosh-Haslem combo at the 4 and 5 spots for long stretches of games, there just aren't enough minutes for a guy like Anthony at a time when the Heat are trying to establish a shorter, playoff-type rotation. Plus, the Bosh-Haslem combo is good defensively, a staple of Heat basketball, and their best options at those positions.

The point guard position is another one of uncertainty for the Heat. Mario Chalmers's production has fallen off a cliff since the all-star break. His FG% has gone from .512 to .379 and from .456 to .308 from three-point range pre- and post-break. Norris Cole has hit the proverbial rookie wall and is finding minutes hard to come by at this point. Now, Chalmers kinda scares me because he shoots with no fear and thus could warm up come playoff time, but as far as setting up the team's half-court offense he's not doing them any favors. He only averages 3.4 APG which seems just plain wrong considering he plays alongside 2 of the best finishers at the rim in the NBA. Regardless, the Heat built this team with Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller in mind to be out with the Big 2 1/2 during crunch time. Now Miller has been dealing with injuries lately after playing through a very successful stretch earlier in the season, so for the Heat it could change from game to game who they put out there, Chalmers or Miller.

In regards to this particular game, I expect the tension/ energy to be ratcheted up a few notches as these two teams begin to impose their will on each other. These two teams don't want to lose to the other and even with all the instability recently, I believe they both know they'll be seeing each other in about a month and a half with a trip to the Finals on the line. Is this the point when this matchup starts to get testy as these two have been battling it out now for the better part of two seasons? If that is the case, who are the enforcers? A perception is building that perhaps the Heat can be pushed around a bit, but who on the Bulls would deliver that hard foul or give that extra shove to send a message? Last year, Big Sexy was a good candidate, and Bogans could definitely get under an opponent's skin, but this year's Bulls team seems to lack such a player and it doesn't seem to be in Thibs's philosophy to encourage dirty play as he probably feels it throws the players' focus off. Also, I think Lebron might be playing a bit banged up recently and so maybe some physical play might discourage him a bit from going to the basket.

Speaking of Lebron, I believe this game is a great opportunity for the Bulls to establish how they will defend the Heat going forward. I'm of the opinion that the Bulls should shy away from double-teaming Lebron. Some of you might call me crazy for thinking this way, but I will elaborate. Between Lebron and Wade, Lebron is the better passer and less versatile offensive player. I feel it's important that the Bulls stay at home on the Heat's perimeter shooters when Lebron has the ball as he has a superior ability to find them out of double teams. Also, I'm not too concerned about having Lebron single covered as his offensive game is a bit more predictable. Sure he is an imposing physical presence with his combination of strength and speed, but his method of scoring is not to diversified. It's either a step-back jumper or plow straight ahead into the defense towards the rim. To me, this makes him a bit easier to anticipate.

In contrast, Wade is a guy the Bulls should throw secondary help towards when the situation calls for it. Wade is a more agile player and thus more unpredictable. He has a great ability to change direction and speed that when he's coming at you, you almost freeze as a defender not knowing which way he'll go. His agility can put a defense on its heels. It's what makes him a great scorer. I say try to filter him towards the help and take away options and possible driving lanes from him. Sure Wade has always been a stat-sheet filler, and that includes assists, but Lebron is the bigger threat in that department. So the Bulls should use this game to try and establish that philosophy.

This is a hard game to handicap. One can easily say the Heat can come out motivated after Tuesday's loss to the Celtics, but I think their current problems run deeper than just getting up for a game. The Bulls are at home, Derrick Rose seems to be in line to suit up and play tonight. I have a feeling this is a win for the Bulls tonight. Now, will it mean anything come playoff time besides helping solidify home-court for the Bulls? Maybe, maybe not. But for tonight, it's the game that's on the schedule and it's what we have to go off of.

TNT, 7pm CST, be at home in front of your TV or at the local watering hole in front of a TV. Get loud, UC!!!! Go Bulls!!!

And as always, go to Peninsula is Mightier if you'd like some solo blogging time.

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