Posted May 22 2011 10:37AM
MIAMI -- As long as they remain undefeated at AmericanAirlines Arena in the postseason, the Miami Heat will be hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy by June 16. It's just that simple.
Much easier said than done, of course. Only one team in the last 20 years, the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, has gone undefeated at home (10-0) on its way to an NBA championship.
The Heat are 6-0 at home thus far in the playoffs, but this edition of the Bulls presents a new challenge. For Miami to maintain home-court advantage in these Eastern Conference finals, they'll have to put together a three-game winning streak against a team that hasn't lost three straight games all season, and hasn't even lost two straight since early February.
The Heat should get a lift from their home crowd when Udonis Haslem checks into Game 3 tonight. It will be the first time the Miami native has played at home since he injured his foot in November. Combine that with how much of an impact Haslem made in the Heat's Game 2 win, and it will be a special moment.
"He's a son of the city," Dwyane Wade said after practice Saturday. "And it's going to be big for him when he checks in the game to hear the ovation from the crowd. Obviously, that's going to give everyone a mental and physical push at that moment. But we have to sustain that."
"I hope it lifts us up, but it's not going to do anything to Chicago," Haslem added. "They're going to come in focused on edge, and they're going to bring it tomorrow. So we've got our hands full."
In reality, the results of Games 3 and 4 will have a lot more to do with execution than location or emotion. In a series between two great defensive teams, the margin for error is small, no matter where the game is being played.
The crowd won't keep Derrick Rose out of the paint on Sunday. The voice of Michael Baiamonte won't keep Joakim Noah off the glass. And the Heat's spacious locker room won't help them score against the No. 1 defense in the league.
While Haslem's home return is sure to be emotional, the Heat need him more for his defense and rebounding than for the reaction he can get out of their fans. They believe they're a different defensive team with their "warrior" on the floor, and there's no denying the effect he had on the glass in Game 2.
With his team unable to finish off their defensive possessions in the first 55 minutes of the series, Haslem checked into Game 2 and helped keep the Bulls to just two offensive rebounds in his 23 minutes. His 13 points were just gravy.
"I wasn't focused on anything but helping my team on the boards and defend," he said. "I didn't imagine myself scoring 13 points or getting any dunks or anything like that. That's going to be my focus on Game 3, hit the boards and defend and let everything else take care of itself."
The Heat know that they won't be able keep the Bulls off the glass completely. With how good Miami's initial defense is, Chicago is going to miss a lot of shots, and they're going to rebound some of them.
Just as important as boxing out will be how the Heat react and recover when the Bulls do get those offensive boards. One reason they won Game 2 is because they allowed only 18 second-chance points on the Bulls' 17 offensive rebounds, as opposed to 31 on 19 in Game 1.
The Heat must also get offensive contributions from their role players, because the Bulls will put their defensive focus on keeping Wade and LeBron James away from the basket. The pair combined to shoot 13-for-17 from within five feet of the hoop on Wednesday.
"Quite frankly, we have to play well against them," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "It's not good enough just to play hard. We have to put together a good game and be able to endure those times when it's a grind."
Home teams are 48-22 in these playoffs, but road teams will have a three-game winning streak going into Sunday's contest. And the Bulls are certainly capable of extending that streak to four.
"You have two teams that can both win on the road," Wade said. "And nothing is a given. You have to fight it out to the very end. No team is going to go away because of the noise in the arena. At the end of the day, it's basketball."
And home-court advantage is only what you make of it.
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