[Thanks to By BULLieving in Miamifor today's game preview -yfbb]
Sure, two losses does not a slump make. However, a few interesting things are going on with the Heat right now. After an 8-game winning streak against decent competition (PHO, GS, DAL, OKC, CHI included) the Heat have dropped the last two in Texas, losing in Houston following Lebron James's 61-point outburst the night before. Then, on Thursday, they lost handily in San Antonio. Yeah, I'm totally sure that makes up for Finals. NOT!! The question here is when will the Heat peak? Obviously, no one was expecting them to runaway with the second half of the season in the fashion they did last year on their way to a 27-game winning streak. However, with the first seed right within their grasp as Indiana is leaving that door wide open, I'd be expecting the Heat to be giving teams all they've got. If Thursday's performance against the Spurs is an indication of how they size up against elite competition the Heat still have a ways to go before they make that three-peat push.
The Spurs are exactly the kind of team that gives the Heat fits, much like the Pacers. Both teams have decent depth but more importantly have the size up front and scoring big men that are the key to beating the Heat. The opposite of that formula is a big reason why recent good teams like the Thunder and Bulls struggle in a series against Miami. With the Bulls, you have Boozer and his fascination with fade-away 18-footers and Noah without a real low-post game. Taj could be an X-factor in this as his shot is greatly improved and he actually attempts to bang down low.
Back to the Heat for a second. You have to wonder if they can hold up going forward. With a tighter schedule the rest of the way (they have 3 more games to play than Indy) the Heat have already been playing a shortened rotation for some while. This Heat team just doesn't feel as deep as those of the last two seasons (and really, they only lost Mike Miller) and are a veteran group. Factor in Dwyane Wade's "maintenance plan" and the Heat are spreading themselves thin on many nights.
Speaking of Wade, the plan might be working as he has really stepped up since the beginning of February. Save for a modest January, Wade's PPG has been steadily climbing each month over the course of the season. Last month, Wade shot 61% from the field and has maintained it above 58% post-All Star game. Wade is putting to rest any notion that his game might fall off a cliff sometime soon. In many ways he's evolved his game. While never being a high-volume 3pt shooter, he's really kept those attempts down and instead has picked his spots when to be aggressive. It's just Wade's nature to be opportunistic. The guy might not be as explosive as he once was but is still as creative as ever. If anything, Lebron's improvement as a shooter and thus the attention that draws when he has the ball in his hand has allowed Wade to maintain his style of play and continue diving and cutting to the basket. However, I really feel the Heat at some point here have to ween Wade off the "maintenance plan" before the playoffs to see how his body handles playing every game with no rest.
So looking forward, I'm really hoping the Bulls land in the #3 seed and hopefully a matchup versus Indiana in Round Two, assuming we get that far. Simply put, I've seen the movie against the Heat already. As a Bulls fan, I'd like to take my chances against Indiana; a team built in the mold of the Bulls and a much better matchup for Chicago. Many Heat fans would take that as well and gladly let the Bulls soften Indy up before a potential ECF matchup versus Miami. But why just dismiss it like that. I want the Indy matchup because I think the Bulls actually have a puncher's chance in such a series, foolish as that may be to think.
I know I've spent a lot of this post talking about Miami, and with good reason. I mean, they are the focus of our ire, are they not? But then I start to think and I ask: why? I can understand the disdain when they first formed in 2010. I get it. I myself fell into the "hate". And with good reason. Nothing like this had ever been seen before. Stars in their prime "colluding" to join up. But look at what the NBA has witnessed since. Antics aside, we've seen a player for the ages in Lebron James finally come into his own and reach his true potential. We've seen some highlight reels the likes of which have never been seen before save for in an exhibition like the all-star game. Seriously. And as basketball fans is this not the kind of stuff we dream of? I understand we Bulls fans in particular revel in their brand of blue-collar, hard-nosed, tough basketball. But forget all that for a moment and think back to playing basketball as a kid on the playground, or in NBA Jam. The types of plays guys like Wade and Lebron are making in the open court is the same kind of stuff we dreamt about on the court... displays of superior athleticism while also having the presence of mind necessary to compete in an actual NBA game. It's Jordan and Pippen, evolved. Not to say better (and hopefully for our sanity Lebron and Wade never win 6 titles) but it is the next step in basketball evolution. So I ask: why the Heat hate? (really, i just want a bunch of Heat bashing in the comments. hehehe)
As far as this game goes, the home court does wonders for the Bulls in this matchup. After being easily handled by the Heat in Miami on Opening Night, the Bulls took care of the Heat at home in similar fashion. There was of course the Streakbusting game last season in Chicago. So Chicago seems to be a tough place for Miami to play. The Heat have also been on a road trip starting with the game in Houston on Tuesday even though they haven't played since Thursday while the Bulls played at home versus the Memphis Grizzlies Friday night. Still, the Heat have stepped up their D, posting lower DRtg and Opp. PPG since the all-star break than over the course of the entire season. While the Heat have plenty of shooting and playmaking on offense the staple of any Heat team is the defense and when the Heat buckle down on that end they play it just about as well as anyone in the league. The Bulls have been having plenty of success on offense recently and thus must avoid going through the kind of cold spells that absolutely killed them in their game in Miami against these Heat just two weeks ago. Jimmy Butler will be playing in this game after missing that game in Miami, but so will Lebron James. Joakim Noah deals with a "boo-boo" of a sprained thumb, and this to me is a worrisome thing because in the last couple weeks we've seen Noah turn an ankle and now sprain a thumb. One has to wonder if the season will finally catch up as it tends to do with him. Finger guns crossed. A boost should also be DJ finally getting back on track after missing a beat (see what I did there?) for a few games there, including a miserable 0-10 from the field in Miami. Thankfully, he and Taj have been providing a big spark in the 2nd quarter off the bench. We'll see how this plays out.
It's hard to see the Heat losing three in a row at this juncture of the season, but y'know what, the Bulls are home and they usually bounce back well from losses and love this matchup. I say Bulls hold serve at home and win on their way to a series split for the season against Miami. Go ahead, call me a homer. Do it. Head over to Hot Hot Hoops and see if they have anything... anything at all to say about the game.
It's an early one in the Windy City with a Noon tip-off time on ABC. So grab your Irish coffee (don't forget the Jameson) and get down to the UC and get loud. Go Bulls!!!