Winter is here... but those down here in South Florida haven’t noticed, where it’s 75 degrees these days and the Heat reign supreme.
The last time these two met, back on November 26th, both teams were still meandering through the first month plus of the season. The Heat were 9-9 and the Bulls were 3-14, merely en route to the low point of their season as they would go on to lose another six in a row and fall to 3-20. Enthusiasm for Bulls basketball was at an all-time low, tanks were thundering down Madison, and the bitter cold hadn’t even arrived yet. A lot has changed since.
We all know the Bulls’ improved play of late. With Zach Lavine making his debut Saturday night in a home victory against Detroit Chicago is finally sporting their full, healthy squad, save for those holding out hope for the triumphant return of Cam Payne. On the other side, we must be reminded that the Heat are not strangers to slow starts. Heck, the Big 3 era started 9-8 and culminated in BumpGate. That’s a tale from a bygone era. However, the one common link (besides Udonis Haslem) is Head Coach Erik Spoelstra, the NBA’s second-longest tenured coach; a stat that tends to get overlooked. Recent Heat teams have improved as the season has wore on, as the Heat have posted top-5 win percentages post-All-Star break the last two seasons. It seems this year’s squad is following suit as the Heat enter this MLK Day contest tied for the longest current winning streak in the NBA at seven games. They look to continue that streak on the second half of an early back-to-back after beating the Milwaukee Bucks handily at home Sunday afternoon.
So much for spoiling the holiday mood as the Bulls gave us the warm and fuzzies throughout December and into the early part of the new calendar year. Lauri Markkanen is Unicorn 2.0, Niko is the bearded hero we deserve, Kris Dunn is giving opposing point guards fits, and now we all anxiously await that moment Lavine throws down his first dunk in Bulls red... though please spare me Stacey King’s Poster Machine. It’s encouraging that 3 of those 4 hopefuls I just mentioned were the return in the Jimmy Butler trade, which helps alleviate all the bad feels from half a year ago.
Back to the streaking Heat, although they’ve been appearing to figure things out lately, Spoelstra has still been forced to tinker with the lineup with Hassan Whiteside and Justise Winslow missing significant stretches of games, though the latter just made his return to the team recently. Now, Dion Waiters is finally undergoing a long-overdue ankle surgery that could sideline him for the remainder of the season. Though he played the role of hero for Miami for a good stretch last season the fact remains that on a bum ankle Waiters hasn’t been able to sustain that same level of play. In truth, that may just have been a blip on the radar and the reality is Waiters simply regressed to the player he’s always been as his points and shooting percentages have fallen from last season, sporting a FG% below 40.
The player whom the Heat have seemingly passed that mantle to now is Josh Richardson. Despite some early season struggles, from December on Richardson has been delivering on the promise he showed two years ago. Miami had high hopes for him entering last season. However, he was never really able to take off as knee and ankle injuries derailed his sophomore campaign. This season he is finally hitting his stride wth his blend of lanky athleticism and slick shooting. Since December 1st he leads the team in scoring while shooting 53% from the field and 47% on threes.
While the Heat have toiled to figure out their lineup it is their organizational commitment to defense that has prompted them to their current success. While ranked 18th in scoring during this 7-game stretch they are a stellar 4th in the league in points allowed, keeping their last 7 opponents combined under 100 per game. To break down that tough defense the Bulls will have to rely on their steady passing and take care of the ball, where the Bulls rank in the top 10 in both assists per game (4th) and turnovers committed (10th). On the flip side, the Bulls should really attempt to bait Miami into turning the ball over themselves, something the Heat do fairly well, ranking in the bottom-third of the league in taking care of the rock. Unfortunately for the Bulls they are the absolute worst at this particular skill. If the Bulls can’t disrupt the Heat from executing their offense it’ll be a long afternoon for Chicago.
While the Heat are definitely hot, I think Chicago comes out rested (day off on Sunday) and puts in a good effort to finally take a game from the Heat in three tries. Miami is on the second half of a B2B, traveling, afternoon start, and let’s be real, they aren’t quite world beaters and will be due for a loss here coming up. Why not make it be so in the Windy City... Hey, it’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day; a man can dream, right?
Head over to Hot Hot Hoops to chat with the enemy and even take a reprieve from those frigid Chicago temperatures and take in some Florida warmth within the theater of the mind. Catch the action at 2:30pm CST on NBC Sports Chicago.
All stats per NBA.com.