2011 NBA Eastern Conference Finals Preview (Sort of)

With life events making posting these days a bit trickier, it makes sense that I am one game late already to a conference finals party.  If we use the season ending power rankings as a guide, we have a varsity-junior varsity semifinal bracket if you consider the whole body of work.  However since the trade deadline (the time when these rosters were “complete”, we actually have three of the six best teams still standing.   So what does it mean, in such a terrific playoff season to date?

Eastern Conference Finals: Chicago Bulls (1st overall, 1st since March 1) vs Miami Heat (2nd overall, 4th since March 1)

This is pretty clearly the matchup that will determine who is favored to win the whole thing.  The Bulls finished with the best overall record, and the Heat just trailing the Bulls in scoring margin, the better leading indicator.  Both teams have been outstanding since the trade deadline.  As Game 1 showed, for a half, the Bulls and Heat are capable of matching up very evenly.  In some ways the Game 1 result showed what the Bulls could do, but in terms of the big picture – I expected a long series anyway.

Heat offense vs Bulls defense:  The Heat finished as the league’s third most efficient offense, and it’s most efficient down the stretch.  The Bulls defense was tops for the whole season and after the deadline.  There is a lot of irresistible force-immovable object cliches to be had here.  The Heat, as you might have known, have a couple of super talents.  LeBron and Wade had worked the whole season to develop their offensive chemistry while Chris Bosh tried to fit into a #3 role.  The Heat’s offensive power was based on shooting the basketball.  The Heat were 2nd in true shooting percentage, 7th in 3 point shooting and 3rd in free throw rating.  Put simply, the Heat by commanding double teams and rotating were excellent at converting scoring chances.  This was especially crucial since the team did not generate many shots, finishing as a below average offensive rebounding team and an average 16th at taking care of the ball (surprisingly high considering the amount of isolations they run).

The Bulls on the other hand are just excellent throughout.  Much has been made of Tom Thibodeau’s defensive schemes, and more should be mentioned.  The Bulls were an excellent team at both preventing successful scoring chances, and preventing scoring chances period.  The Bulls were the top true shooting defense in the league, and did it by smothering opponents field goal chances.  This team was not a ball hawking side like the Grizzlies for instance, but they made it very hard for their opponents to score, with the leading FG% and 3P% against and the lowers 3P frequency.  They prevented good looks from three point land and forced tough two point shots.  When they forced misses, they retrieved them, with an exemplary 2nd overall defensive rebounding rate.

As Game 1 showed, Miami’s first shot offense will be able to do some things here and there.  The Heat shot a fairly respectable 47% from the floor.  Indeed they actually shot a decent true shooting percentage of about 55% (for perspective, the 10th place team this year did that), when you combine their unsustainably perfect 15-15 from the line.  The Bulls affected them, but only about the level you’d expect.  However, the shot quantity disadvantage showed badly.  The Heat only recovered 6 of their 36 misses (league median is about 1 in 4) and turned it over 16 times in a slow game.  Both of those rates would be far and away dead last over the season.  Erik Spoelstra mentioned that it was about the rebounding.  He was absolutely right.

Can the Heat flat out get enough looks against the Bulls defense?  They need to do better with the chances they have or generate more chances.  Considering they actually did fairly well with the former, the latter has to get better.  When you look at the Bulls bigs though, especially bringing forces like Taj Gibson and Omer Asik in, the shot generating is a wound that might not heal.  EDGE: Bulls

Bulls offense vs Heat defense: The Bulls have an average offense, finishing 13th overall though it did improve as the season went on.  The Heat defense finished a sound fifth, although it dipped to 14th after the trade deadline – probably a function of adding molasses slow Mike Bibby to their starting lineup.  Looking at the Bulls, they are an average conversion offense.  They finished 15th in true shooting percentage, with fairly pedestrian stats across the board.  They finished only 13th in FG%, 13th in 3P%, 14th in 3P frequency, and got to the line decently but shot it poorly, thus finishing 13th in overall FT efficiency.  However, they were decent at generating chances, finishing 6th in shots per possession – a function of, as you might have intuited from above, their size and rebounding.  The athleticism edge shines through here too, as the Bulls were 4th in the league in offensive rebounding, which more than offset their poor turnover rate (21st).

The Heat do it with first scoring chance defense.   They finished 5th in the league in TS%, 2nd in the league in FG%.  What the Heat have managed to do defensively is augment their stars with some guys like Joel Anthony who cannot catch a cold, but block shots and make it hard for opponents to score.  The Heat’s ability to prevent baskets and successfully rebound misses essentially creates the entirety of their defensive prowess.  What is interesting to Heat watchers is that Wade and LeBron streaking into the open floor seemed like a rare occurence (and at least not a team wide one).  This is backed up numerically, as no matter what stretch of the season – they have not forced turnovers (finishing 26th overall).  Perhaps the decision to stay solid and conservative was due to a lack of trust of their wings to do their jobs, or the back line to be stout when offensive players tried to break down the perimeter.  The result is that the Heat were below the league average in shot prevention.  They were able to lock down shots, but not good at preventing them.

Game 1 actually fed into this trend again.  The Bulls shot only 43.7%, below their season average, and certainly good enough for the Heat.  However the TS% was actually 53.8% due to the Bulls going 10 for 21 from three point land.  These numbers were both out of line with what the Heat typically allow and what the Bulls typically shoot.  In that sense, this could be an outlier.  On the other hand, the Bulls recovered 19 of their 49 misses an turned it over only 9 times in the 86 possessions.  This meant that in a slow-ass 86 possession game, the Bulls got 87 shots off, a rate which no other team in the league did this year.  As Spoelstra said, it was a hustle problem, a quantity problem.

The Bulls with their frontcourt athleticism and depth crushed Miami in the shot generation department, while doing a good job taking care of the ball.  That sort of quantity advantage is necessary to offset the Heat’s advantage defending the shots that are taken.  However in the long run, will the Bulls edge on the offensive glass be THIS bad?  Miami normally protects its backboard well.  The Bulls do not turn the ball over this rarely normally, and they do not shoot the three this well.  Miami is still poised to have the edge in the matchup, but the Bulls have to be encouraged by how they did in their strength areas.  EDGE: Heat

Two Keys to the Series:

  1. Heat: They have the two best players in the world (or at least the two best wings).  Both were mediocre in the first game, and Luol Deng against LeBron will be a big key.  If the games are close and execution related, the Heat HAVE to feel good that they can run two man game with them.  In the playoffs the top of the depth chart matters more than the bottom.  IF Chris Bosh fills his 3rd man role, the Heat’s top end guys are still 3 of the 4 best players on the floor.
  2. Bulls: It is all about quantity.  It is about preventing shots, generating shots.  They win with Derrick Rose, yes, but also phenomenal bench play, especially defensively.  Taj Gibson, Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer and the ever present Luol Deng (who just plays every minute) have been nightmares to score on.  The Bulls will not outshoot Miami, but they can outgenerate Miami like they did in Game 1.  If they manage the turnovers like they did in Gamer 1, they are going to give themselves a ton of chances to win.

These teams are very close, and in a close series I lean towards the team with the best player.  However the Bulls have very serious edges here, and my pick of Heat in 6 is very very reluctant.

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