Despite Thibs’ best attempts to play the "it’s just another game" card, even LBJ and Joakim Noah have admitted that there is something special about Heat/Bulls games. These teams have employed the same core for the past 3 years, so we have a pretty good idea at this point of what strategies are going to be employed and how the strengths and weaknesses of each team match up against each other.
What makes matchups between the Bulls and Heat so interesting is that the coaches of both teams have designed their teams in almost opposite ways in two key areas. Which strategy is better against each other? Is it better to eschew offensive rebounding for spacing and better weaponry on offense? How vital is it to guard against the 3 or gamble for steals? Tom Thibodeau and Erik Spoelstra have come up with almost diametrically opposite solutions to these problems, and despite their differences each has had tremendous success.
1. Offensive Rebounding Juggernauts vs. Who Needs Offensive Rebounds when we never miss?
The Bulls and Heat are two vastly different teams in terms of rebounding philosophy. The Bulls make their living killing teams off the glass. (4th/1st/5th in offensive rebounding percentage). Oftentimes, Thibs will sacrifice offensive efficiency in crunch time by playing guys who are very strong offensive rebounders but not great scorers (Taj/Asik/Butler/Ronnie Brewer over Boozer/Korver/Belinelli)
Miami, on the other hand, has gone from a below-average offensive rebounding team in the first two years of their construction (19th, 19th) to one of the worst in the league (26th/30). Rather than have a plodding center out there, Spoelstra usually just throws a combination of either Battier, LeBron, or more recently Chris Anderson in at the 4 while Bosh plays the 5. While this makes them a bit undersized, they mask this weakness with an insane efficiency on the shots they do take and good offensive options surrounding James/Wade/Bosh. What’s scary is that they have been getting more efficient shots every year they’ve been together (6th/4th/1st in eFG%).
We’ve seen these results play out in the two playoff series in 2011 and 2013, where the Bulls crushed Miami on the offensive glass (70 to 35 in 2011, 66 to 37 in 2013) but Miami just shot the ball too well for the Bulls to take the edge with their extra opportunities. If the Bulls want to take advantage of their rebounding edge, their frontcourt needs to find out a way to slow down Miami’s small 4’s and 5’s on the other end.
2. Thibs would angrily block Derrick Rose’s 1-yr old son if he tried to shoot a 3 in the United Center vs. oh, we’re supposed to guard 3’s?
Teams take a lot of 3’s against Miami and they make a lot too. Miami has ranked 18th, 29th, and 21st in the league in 3 pointers allowed the past 3 years. We saw in the San Antonio series, where the Spurs averaged over 9 made 3’s per game against the Heat that Miami lets up a lot of 3’s. We saw it before too when Dallas beat Miami in the 2011 finals by averaging over 8 made 3’s per game. It may be the only way you can really beat this team.
With its athletic backcourt, Miami elects to play the passing lanes a lot more than stay at home on 3 point shooters. They’ve ranked 3rd in the league in steals the past two seasons, which makes sense given their personnel and their massive advantage when they get into a fast break offense.
Contrast this strategy to the Bulls. Teams don’t shoot 3’s against a Thibodeau defense. They just don’t. The Bulls have been 1st/1st/2nd in 3 pointers allowed in the past 3 seasons. You can see Thibs stomping maniacally and doing his weird hand-shaking thing whenever the Bulls let up a 3 pointer. It’s kind of hilarious. Thibs doesn’t like his guys gambling for steals (Bulls bottom half the last three years), likes to keep the pace slow (near-last place in pace throughout Thibs’ tenure), and likes a very methodical, stay at home defense.
The problem with taking advantage of the Heat’s 3 point weaknesses is that the Bulls just haven’t been that good at 3 point shooting themselves, especially in the playoffs. The Bulls have been 15th/17th/29th in 3 pointers made the past 3 years, and they’ve been bad against the Heat in the playoffs. (31/99 in 5 games in 2011, 33/99 in 5 games in 2013). A large part of the problem is that the Bulls just don’t take enough 3’s, which is a bad way to take advantage of a team whose weakness is allowing too many 3’s. I get the feeling that Thibodeau knows how valuable 3’s are, which is why he defends against them so vigorously, but he just never gets the personnel from the front office to take advantage on the other side of the ball.
Kyle Korver was supposed to fill this role in 2011, but for whatever reason he just couldn’t get the job done in the playoffs. He was 4/14 from 3 and 11/36 overall against the Heat in the 2011 series.
The great news for Bulls fans is that Dunleavy was pretty good against the Heat in the regular season last year on the Bucks. Last year, he shot 13/35 (37%) from 3 and 32/66 (49%) overall against the Heat in the regular season. Furthermore, in news that should bring tears of joy to Bulls fans, he crushed against the Heat in the first round of the playoffs, shooting 7/16 from 3 and 17/30 overall. The big thing here is that he was able to find his shot and get 4 attempts per game while making a high percentage. Another good sign is that Derrick Rose has looked outstanding from 3 in the preseason, shooting 44% on almost 4 attempts per game. The Bulls are going to need to make around 7 or 8 threes per game against the Heat to really have a chance to beat this team. This means they need to up their attempts while still shooting a good percentage.
Keep an eye throughout the season for 1) If Chicago can maintain its offensive rebounding edge while not getting punished by quicker, better shooters while on defense and 2) if the Bulls can get a high number of good quality attempts as two signs for how well the Bulls will fare against the Heat in the playoffs.