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Shaun Powell

LeBron and Derrick Rose could have been teammates. Now they will face off for a chance at the Finals.
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Bulls-Heat presents new pecking order in East hierarchy

Posted May 13 2011 10:07AM

The Heat spent last summer cashing in and adding the pieces to win now and in the near future. But wouldn't you know, the Bulls took the exact same approach and here we are.

So: These teams may as well get used to seeing each other around this time. This Eastern Conference final could be the kick-start of a spirited, passionate and legitimate rivalry for East supremacy, something we've seen before, in epic fashion. Bulls-Pistons (Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas), Pistons-Celtics (Isiah and Larry Bird) and Sixers-Celtics (Julius Erving and Bird) come immediately to mind.

Really, unless Dwight Howard does something in the near future to disrupt things -- say, maybe join Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire in New York -- the Bulls and Heat will have plenty of say in who represents the East for the NBA championship. All of the key players on both teams are either still in their prime or just scratching it. If it's possible, these teams are running a sprint and a marathon.

Both teams cleared cap space for this. Both teams chased the same free agents last summer. Both team presidents, Gar Forman in Chicago and Pat Riley in Miami, shared the Executive of the Year award. Both coaches, Erik Spoelstra of the Heat and Tom Thibodeau of the Bulls, believe in defense above all else.

Derrick Rose won the MVP award, snapping LeBron James' streak of two straight. And Dwyane Wade is rooted in both cities, born to Chicago, came to life in Miami.

Let us go back to last summer for a moment and play what-if. What if LeBron decided to take his talents to Oak Street Beach instead? Would the one-two punch of LeBron and Rose been more lethal than LeBron-Wade? Suppose the Heat signed Carlos Boozer instead of Chris Bosh? Or the Bulls got Bosh instead of Boozer? Finally, what if Wade pulled a surprise and left Miami to form an All-Chicago-born backcourt in Chicago?

Instead, what happened was probably best for basketball fans. Wade and LeBron are the modern-day Jerry West and Elgin Baylor after a slow and sometimes awkward beginning in November and December.

"People said it wouldn't work between the two of us," said LeBron. "They said our games were too similar. Even the greats of the past doubted us."

Without an equal around to share the ball, Rose was allowed to expand his game this season and Chicago witnessed the arrival of a star who stayed unselfish and humble. Above all, Miami and Chicago embraced the defensive mindset of their coaches and put themselves here, on the verge of a trip to The Finals.

It should be an interesting series, only to be surpassed by the half-dozen years to follow.

Five quick questions:

1. Who plays better defense, Miami or Chicago? Coin flip right there. The Bulls allow only 91 points, Miami 94. Joel Anthony and Joakim Noah concentrate much of their energy on the glass and shot-blocking and give offense only a second's pause. LeBron made first-team All-Defense and Wade is almost as good on defense as offense. Rose brings quick hands and goes for the steal. You get the idea.

2. How badly will the Heat point guards struggle against Rose? As badly as anyone against the super-quick MVP. Mario Chalmers brings more energy than Mike Bibby and will get more of the minutes if Bibby's three-point shooting stays frigid (23 percent in the playoffs). Erik Spoelstra would rather not pull the emergency lever and give Wade too much time against Rose.

3. Can Keith Bogans slow down Wade? That's a tough task. Bogans helped lock down Joe Johnson the last two games of the last series as Chicago limited him to 34 points combined in Games 5 and 6 (remember, Johnson had 34 in Game 1). So Bogans is certainly no slouch. Wade scored 34, 33 and 20 points against the Bulls this season, but Miami did lose all three. If Wade is drawing fouls, then the Bulls will call for reinforcements, quick.

4. Could the Bulls' bench be the difference? No question, Chicago's reserves are twice as productive as Miami's. Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver, Omer Asik (a revelation against Atlanta), Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson all find a way to leave their mark once they leave the bench. Problem is, the rotation usually tightens at this stage of the playoffs.

5. For the sake of his mental health, who needs a big series: Carlos Boozer or Chris Bosh? How about both? Boozer's been very inconsistent in the postseason and even heard rumblings of discontent from fans during the Pacers series. Bosh admitted to being shaken by the challenge of guarding Kevin Garnett during the Boston series. Boozer wanted to sign with Miami last summer but settled for the Bulls when Wade wanted Bosh.

When the Heat have the ball: This is not an imaginative half-court team. Uusally, it goes down like this: LeBron or Wade isolate on their man and improvise, while everyone stands and watches. Sounds easy to defend, right? Well, only if the Heat aren't making their shots. And only if LeBron and Wade aren't getting to the rim. Wade, LeBron and Bosh are averaging 68 of the Heat's 94.7 ppg, an astonishing number, but quite understandable given how everyone else just waits for the open shot.

The Bulls are winning because of defense more than Rose, although the Hawks did drop 100 twice in the last series. When it counted, though, the Bulls snuffed Atlanta in the fourth quarter, something they've done all year. Chicago rotates well and cuts off passing lanes, and the Bulls also force teams into taking contested shots. The Bulls are also very tough on the glass, with a big help from Noah; the Bulls finished second in the league in rebounds per game and are averaging 43.9 rpg in the playoffs.

When the Bulls have the ball: It's all about Rose, the point man in so many ways for Chicago. Rose is averaging 28.8 ppg in the playoffs and also taking 24 shots, 10 more than the next closest Bull (Luol Deng). Can a team win an NBA championship when its point guard assumes so much of the scoring chores? Rose will put that theory to test. He must play at a high level or the Bulls, lacking in stars compared to Miami and with few high-percentage shooters, have no chance. Other than Deng and sometimes Boozer, none of the other Bulls get many plays run for them. At times, Chicago can be fairly predictable in the half court. Boozer is shooting only 42 percent, but did shoot 56.8 percent (21-for-37) in Games 4, 5 and 6 against the Hawks.

Only twice in 10 playoff games -- in Game 3 against Boston and in Game 3 against Philadelphia -- and have the Heat allowed more than 91 points, a testament to their greatest strength: defense. Miami is especially tough when turning steals or opponent turnovers into highlight footage, because nobody runs the floor better or swifter than James and Wade. Speaking of Wade, he will likely get a share of the Rose assignment. Bosh played decent and sometimes very good defense on Garnett and now will draw another bruiser in Boozer, who along with Gibson is the only real inside scoring threat for Chicago.

Wild Cards: Kyle Korver, who set the single-season 3-point shooting percentage record in 2009-10, is one of the best 3-point shooters in recent years. He'll make teams pay for throwing double-teams at Rose. But Korver is also incredibly streaky and like most shooters, is prone to going cold. After making 58.8 percent on his 3-pointers in the first round against Indiana, Korver "slumped" to 38.1 percent in the semis against Atlanta. If he can connect anywhere in range he did against the Pacers, well, score a big bonus for the Bulls. But the Heat did a good job on Ray Allen in the last series, and no offense to Korver, but he's no Ray Allen.

Is U-D ready for duty? Udonis Haslem was terribly unprepared for the brief taste of playoff action he received against the Celtics, bricking a shot and getting beat for a rebound and being whistled for a tech. And a few more days of practice may not make a huge difference. However, if he can give Bosh and Anthony a breather in this series without hurting the Heat, that's a big bonus for a team with alarming depth issues.

The pick: The Bulls had the best record in the East but did not dominate Indiana and Atlanta, both inferior teams, in the post-season. Can they raise their level for Miami, which is clearly better than the team that lost all three to Chicago during the season? Probably not. The Bulls have one true superstar, the Heat two, and the simple mathematics say the Heat will have an extra option come crunch time, when playoff games are won. This will be a longer series for Miami than the first two, although not by much. Heat in 6.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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