Posted May 5, 2013 12:22 PM
Toughness over talent, huh?
It makes a great slogan. Splash it across the front of a T-shirt or slap it on a billboard in Chicago and everyone in the city would know you were talking about the Bulls, who have manufactured an Eastern Conference semifinals appearance with a surplus of former and a patched up smattering of the latter.
How that formula works against the defending champion Miami Heat, however, is a case study everyone wants to see.
Outworking the Brooklyn Nets in a first-round series, bolstered by an epic Game 7 road performance from All-Star center Joakim Noah, is one thing. Doing it against a Heat team that is operating on seven days rest, fueled by a hungry LeBron James riding the wave of a second straight MVP-winning campaign and a seasonlong mission to repeat is a challenge that is every bit as daunting in theory as it is in the flesh.
"I'm very excited," said Noah, who destroyed the Nets with 26 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks in that Game 7 win. "Obviously they are the best. You want to play against the best. It's going to be ... I mean, this is what it's all about, playing against the defending champs. It's going to be a war."
Having survived that Game 7 battle with the Nets without starters Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich, and the entire season without Derrick Rose, Noah and the Bulls are right to enter the ring against the Heat with a legitimate air of confidence.
The Bulls are one of the few teams in the league equipped to withstand the pressure the Heat bring to the party. They did snap the Heat's 27-game win streak during the regular season, ending the Heat's quest for the Los Angeles Lakers' NBA record 33-game win streak with a 101-97 win March 27 in an electric atmosphere at the United Center that had playoff intensity physicality from both sides.
They split their two regular season meetings and the Bulls are 8-8 against the Heat since the James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Big 3 era began. The Bulls have every reason to believe that they can cause the Heat the same sort of problems in this series that they have in the past. Because unlike the faux-rivalry some teams try and conjure up in this situations, the Bulls and Heat have a real rivalry that dates back to the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, a series won by the Heat in five games.
"It's a rivalry, everybody knows that," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "We just have to regroup, get guys back healthy and take a stab at it."
While most everyone else already has the Heat locked in as the Eastern Conference representative for The Finals, the stubborn Bulls are resolute in their belief that they can not only interrupt those plans, but scuttle them altogether.
Noah, Carlos Boozer, Gibson and the rest of the Bulls' front-court rotation is braced for whatever James and the Heat's crew will bring. They dished out as good as they got in the regular season matchups. They know they got under the Heat's skin a bit when they ended that 27-game win streak, prompting James to complain about the physical pounding they put on him (complete with a Hinrich tackle and a James retaliation blow on Boozer).
"Those are not basketball plays and it's been happening all year," James said after that game, when the Heat walked off the floor without acknowledging the Bulls with so much as a glance or a single handshake. "I've been able to keep my cool and try to tell [Heat coach Erik Spoelstra], 'Let's not worry about it too much,' but it's getting to me a little bit."
That was the point. The black and blue Bulls don't mask their intentions. They play in a throwback style -- as physical as the game officials will allow and relentlessly, particularly on the defensive end -- that would make a certain former Bulls nemesis, the Bad Boys Pistons, extremely proud.
It's the one style that seems to bother the Heat, who are equipped to play basically any way they need to and still thrive. No one wants to sustain the physical agitation and punishment the Bulls serve up over the course of 48 minutes.
Primal energy alone, however, won't suffice against this Heat team. They've been through too much, been hardened by the process of the past. They've forged a toughness of their own that while maybe not as celebrated as the Bulls' nail-bending formula, it's been every bit as effective for the Heat's cause.
"We know how good Miami is," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "So we're going to have to be at our best, playing great basketball. They are a very deep team, extremely well coach, very well balanced."
It's going to take a double-dose of toughness over talent ... there's that slogan again.
But what happens when you're facing an opponent with a surplus of both?
The Bulls are about to find out.
1. Who suits up for the depleted Bulls in Game 1? It won't be Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich or Luol Deng. The Bulls won that Game 7 in Brooklyn without those three and will likely have to start this series without all three of them as well. If the guys who are healthy can duplicate the Game 7 effort, the Bulls will give a fine showing without them. But make no mistake, if they have any chance at all of pushing the Heat to the brink in this series they are going to need Hinrich and Deng to come back at some point early. As for Rose ...
2. Is there any chance Rose makes his season debut in this series? People have to be tired of wondering about Rose at this late stage of the Bulls' season. He told TNT's Rachel Nichols before Game 7 that he would not return until he felt "comfortable." Rose-watch continues.
3. Will the week of rest work in the Heat's favor or against them in Game 1? The break couldn't have come at a better time for the Heat, Dwyane Wade in particular. But they didn't need it. You don't win 27 straight games and worry about getting a break in the playoffs. Scrimmaging the Bucks for four games in the first round wasn't ideal preparation for the challenge the Bulls bring. But the Heat are locked in and have been since last year this time. The layoff won't bother them much, if at all.
4. Who wins the big man energy battle, Joakim Noah or Chris "Birdman" Andersen? Noah's going to have the edge in minutes, so he'll have a greater chance to impact this series, provided his sore foot allows him to remain in the mix. Andersen has served the Heat well in his ever-increasing role off the bench. But Noah went Shaquille O'Neal on us with that Game 7 performance (he and the big fella are the only players to score 24-plus points on 70-plus percent shooting while also grabbing 14 or more rebounds and blocking six or more shots in a playoff game). Noah gets the edge here.
5. Is there a better coaching matchup in the conference semifinal round? Nope. Tom Thibodeau took a team ravaged by injury and illness and led them to an upset of a higher seeded team in Round 1, complete with a Game 7 win on the road. Erik Spoelstra is a meticulous mastermind of all things for this talented Heat team. He's matched wits with Thibs before (2011 Eastern Conference finals) and prevailed. It might not be Phil Jackson against Gregg Popovich, but it is a clash of current coaching titans.
Neither LeBron James nor Dwyane Wade have to dominate the ball for the Heat to be effective. In fact, the Heat's two biggest stars often defer to their teammates early in games to make sure everyone gets involved in the flow of the game. That said, their spacing is fantastic when James and Wade are in attack mode and that provides shooters like Ray Allen, Shane Battier and even Mario Chalmers and Chris Bosh all sort of opportunities they wouldn't have otherwise.
The Heat's reserves showed in the Bucks series that they are more than capable of sharing a significant portion of the scoring responsibility if need be. The Bulls can match them man for man off the bench, when healthy, so they're going to need to bring it against a team that is their defensive equal.
Without a healthy superstar to tote the load for them, the Bulls have become masters of execution in the half court, spreading the responsibility around on a nightly basis and riding whoever has it going on a given night. Joakim Noah gave them an inside presence in Game 7 against Brooklyn and Carlos Boozer was steady the entire series. Nate Robinson proved to be a matchup nightmare for Brooklyn off the dribble and can have a similar impact against the Heat if they are not careful.
If and when Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng return, the Bulls will settle into a more traditional set up. But in the meantime, they're going to mix things up in whatever way necessary to be effective against a Heat team that is one of the superior defensive outfits in the league.
There's no mystery for the Heat. When you have two Finals MVPs on the floor, you ride the hot hand and allow them to do what they do best. LeBron James or Dwyane Wade will be at the controls for the Heat, same as always. And there's no reason to upset the order of things if you are the Heat.
Nate Robinson always believes he is the best player on the floor, regardless of who else is out there, so the Bulls have a fearless performer of their own to go to. Joakim Noah dominated Brook Lopez in Game 7 of the Bulls' first round series and his toughness and grit inside will be invaluable against the Heat.
Future Hall of Famers don't often find themselves here, but Ray Allen was made for this series. The Heat are going to try and attack the Bulls from all angles and they'll need their best shooter to be on his game from the start. Allen averaged 16.5 points and shot 47 percent from deep against the Bucks. The Heat need more of the same against the Bulls.
Sorry Nate Robinson, we know you normally own this spot. But if Luol Deng is ailing, Jimmy Butler is the one other guy on the Bulls roster that comes close to matching up well with LeBron James (if that's actually possible). If he can bother LeBron the way he has Carmelo Anthony in the past, the Bulls will need him to do so consistently.
Toughness over talent worked for the Bulls in the first round. And they'll have plenty of folks jumping on the underdog bandwagon against the defending champion Heat. But a well-rested Heat team, a group hardened by a spectacular regular season and focused on every detail this process provides, will not succumb to the overconfidence that cost the Nets. The Heat march on in six.
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