The Heat put on quite the defensive clinic to pressure ball handlers and shut down passing lanes to kill Bulls possessions throughout the teams' Thursday matchup. The Bulls fell 83-72 in a game that didn't feel much in reach, despite how close the Bulls kept the score for much of the evening.
With Derrick Rose out, C.J. Watson started and had foul problems, giving John Lucas III the brunt of the minutes. Neither Watson nor Lucas could start the offense -- let alone crates ways to finish possessions -- against Miami's aggressive defense, Sam Smith noted:
Technically, the Bulls departed from the game plan that worked so well in Chicago in two wins over Miami, one without Rose and one with Rose having his poorest game as a pro.
Miami pursues to the ball with a trap and then falls back into the paint to defend. So you have to swing the ball around the floor to get open shots on the weak side. But both Watson and Lucas kept dribbling into the traps as the Bulls went on to a season low 72 points.
The Heat executed their defense often near the halfcourt line. And when they didn't, they kept men home on Richard Hamilton and Kyle Korver off the ball. They switched if they had to off of screens, clearly communicating well and highly prepared for the Bulls' tendencies to using off-ball screens to space out the defense and create looks for two or three players.
Where Rose was most needed was the lack of anticipating the trap. When Rose anticipates traps, he normally starts their "UCLA" sets, where Joakim Noah gets the ball at the top of the key and Rose finds space to get the ball back after the defense's imbalance can be exploited.
Or, when he's most dynamic, calls for a player to move from weak-to-strong side, forcing: either (a) the trap to go away and re-balance; (b) overload the strong side of the floor, opening up weak side shooters and cutters; or (c) over-occupy the perimeter to free up a driving lane. And this all happens within four or five seconds, so the defensive adjustment can't be rewarded.
When the Bulls have looked their best against the Heat, they ran these sets to counter their trap in about two or three seconds.
But, as Smith noted, the over-dribbling rewarded the Heat's aggression -- and the Heat were less inclined to over-commit players to the ball, as they do when they're exploited. The Heat executed their defense at a fast pace with a high I.Q. and the Bulls ball handlers played into it.
What hurt the offense even more was Luol Deng getting run down by LeBron Jams on the other end. This is a common thread in the teams' matchups and Tom Thibodeau looked to preserve Deng's energy -- to be used more on the offensive end -- by switching Deng with the paint anchors, Noah and Omer Asik.
LeBron took it right to the bigs when the help was a switch instead of a trap, got to the free throw line often and hit almost whatever spot on his left side of the paint he wanted. And you can't blame Thibs, as he knows that over-helping LeBron is exactly what LeBron wants because a teammate then has a high-efficient opportunity that LeBron will find about as often as anyone.
Deng hit a handful of tough mid-range jumpers in broken plays, but with the Bulls' awful rebounding, shooting only 5-for-15 turned into the equivalent of about seven or eight turnovers, the way Miami runs the floor in transition.
Despite throwing up 45 bricks (25-for-70, 35.8%), the Bulls only mustered up seven offensive boards. That's a recipe for Bulls failure against any good team when they can shoot around 45%; the lack of second chances in this affair, shooting this bad, proved to make the offense go completely limp. When energetic boosts were needed to wear the Heat down by elongating the possessions where they had to defense, they weren't there, as they were allowed to play 24-second defense. By the next Bulls possession, they were rested up enough to finish another 24-second defensive set, and so on, and so on, and so on.
What can be said is that these two teams have a great knack for making each other look awful. Without Chris Bosh and with Dwyane Wade's abilities limited, LeBron was Miami's shining armor. But both defenses forced the jump shots you want opponents to take. The problem was LeBron bull rushing his way through the defense in unstoppable manners and Wade still able to get eight shots at the rim; and that was all she wrote.
As for what will carry over to the playoffs, if the two teams meet in the Eastern Conference Finals, there's a lot of film for these two film room junkie head coaches to dissect. Noah shook off James Jones launching at his head, and credit the officials for easing that conflict by ejecting Jones from the game.
Hamilton and Wade gave each other elbows everywhere above the waist the entire game and Wade, uncharacteristically, lost his composure with a big shove. But this isn't a new development, as Hamilton's always had a knack for getting into Wade's head. So much as to goad Wade into moments that stupid? No, but the physicality between the two of them will tilt more weight to one side or the other in a playoff series.
A playoff series in which the Bulls will have no chance if the Heat strike the balance of trapping and occupying passing lanes as they did Thursday, and the Bulls unable to recognize that spacing.
Stats via Hoopdata.