Will the Bulls see a new Heat team Sunday?


Mar 5

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I’ve been waiting for this, and my guess is the Bulls Sunday see the Miami Heat using its best lineup for the first time this season.

It’s a lineup they’ve ignored, pretty much because the stars, players like LeBron James and Chris Bosh, don’t care for the positioning.

But arriving in Miami Saturday, the Bulls are finding a Heat team perhaps at its most desperate with four losses on its last five games, including the blown 24-point lead against the Magic and 30-point blowout loss to the Spurs Friday night while the Bulls were pushing comfortably past the Magic and by percentage points into second ahead of the Heat in the Eastern Conference.

You can say it is a glass half filled/half empty game.

The Bulls are the team on the rise, becoming something of a national darling while the Heat is considered in free fall and facing what local media is calling the season’s biggest and perhaps defining game on national TV Sunday (noon Chicago time).

Yes, and three quarters into the season the Bulls and Heat are essentially tied in the standings. So how could one be feeling championship possibilities and the other facing crushing disappointment?

It’s all about expectations, obviously.

“You look at their record and it tells you how good they are,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said after Saturday practice. “They’re a great team. They’re a well-balanced team. They’ve gotten better as the season has gone along. They played great in the Orlando game for a good part of that game. They were caught in a tough situation yesterday with a back-to-back. But they’re a terrific team. They’ve got everything: Wade and LeBron off the dribble, Bosh in the post, great shooting and they’re terrific defensively.”

So why is everyone burying them?

Embattled (again) Heat coach Eric Spoelstra talked after the loss to the Spurs about making a stand Sunday, though the murmurs are starting again about his job status.

So Spoelstra gave a peek at just what the Bulls may face Sunday: Bosh at center and LeBron James at power forward.

It’s a lineup both have eschewed, but clearly the other way doesn’t seem to be working, certainly of late.

After the Heat fell behind by 24 in the first quarter to the Spurs Friday, Spoelstra opened the second half with Mike Bibby at point guard, Dwyane Wade at shooting guard, Mike Miller at small forward, James at power forward and Bosh at center.

Bosh doesn’t like playing center as he’s not much for physical play, and while James can handle it as one of the game’s strongest players, he prefers being on the perimeter and directing things. Opponents love him there firing up those bad threes.

But get him in the post making passes against double teams or spinning inside, god forbid, against someone like Carlos Boozer, and you may have some big problems.

I’ve talked to many coaches around the league who say that is the most dangerous Heat lineup, but always say not to tell them since they keep trotting out non scorers like Erick Dampier and Joel Anthony at center and Mario Chalmers at point guard.

It’s the Pat Riley/Spoelstra vision: You win with force. You win with power. Deny air space! Whatever the heck they talk about.

But the Heat may finally be facing that they have to put their five most talented players on the court no matter position and try to take advantage of that talent advantage everyone says they have.

Because the great defense thing has been coming apart.

Long tops in defensive field goal percentage and defending the three, Miami has fallen to second overall and seventh on threes. The Bulls have taken over No. 1 in both categories,

But it would present some issues for the Bulls trying to match up with that lineup.

It would be difficult to let James go without a double inside, and Bosh will be a tough perimeter cover and unlikely to duplicate that one for 18 game in Chicago that began the Heat’s latest flame out.

Bibby, of course, couldn’t defend a traffic cone. But no one is stopping Derrick Rose, anyway. Bibby could play a more traditional point guard role if they can get James to give up the ball on occasion. Bibby also is among the league leaders in three point shooting as well as Miller having that capability. That lineup could spread the floor better and open up driving lanes, which is when the Heat are most difficult. They’ll be shooting free throws and attacking the basket instead of settling for jumpers.

They were doing that against Orlando in running up that 24-point lead, and then Wade said they made the mistake of going to Bosh.

“Maybe me and LeBron need to do a better job of when we have it going like that we need to stay in attack mode,” Wade told reporters after that game. “We tried to establish Chris early (in the third quarter). We should’ve continued to try to establish what we were doing.”

You can see LeBron and Wade pretty much are growing frustrated with Bosh, and James has begun his subtle jabs at Spoelstra again, like when he said the last play to try to tie the game against Orlando failed.

“They’d probably been scouting us a lot, seeing we like to go to the corner,” said James.

C’mon Erik! Think of something!

Well, maybe he has and maybe it is time for James to sacrifice some and do what’s best for the team.

It will be something to watch for and see if Miami’s philosophy changes and whether they give in to what seems like the last desperate act.

I’ve never heard anything from Wade, and I did raise the subject with him at the All Star game. But I’ve heard numerous team officials wonder how much Wade regrets not joining Rose in Chicago.

A bit of the luster of Wade is being scraped off in even Miami as he’s been ignored in basically every late game sequence by James or Bosh in recent weeks. Media now is pointing to his poor defense, mostly gambling for steals and giving up easy baskets and drives that compromise the defense. It is pointed out he stands around on offense a lot and just watches without moving much. There are complaints he complains too much about calls and doesn’t run back on defense, and why he has ceded so much to James.

With the Bulls essentially tied with the Heat now despite blocks of games missed by both Boozer and Noah—though Miami has lost Udonis Haslem for the season—you can see Wade as the missing piece in Chicago. And they’d still have had money to sign Boozer or Bosh as that second so called “max’ salary went for a combination of reserve players after Boozer was signed.

How perfect would that have been for the Bulls and Wade for that all-Chicago backcourt with what would have to be the league’s best starting five. And then you watch the anguish on Wade’s face trying to explain all of these losses, which, to his credit, he always steps up and doesn’t duck the uncomfortable questions.

It raises the question of whether anyone can really play with James.

I happened to stumble into this ESPN afternoon show where the studio crew chortles a lot and this pretty girl does national surveys. I had been considering hitting my head against the wall, but watched some of that, instead. They were having a debate about whether playing with James would hurt Rose, and I was surprised to see their survey had 79 percent of the respondents said yes.

This came about after Rose said in a nicely done Sports Illustrated story last week he had texted James he’d have no problem playing with him after there were reports he didn’t want to play with James. There also were later reports James didn’t come to the Bulls because Rose wasn’t nice enough. I think there also were reports James thought Rose was a flower.

I always felt I had a pretty good idea what went on with Rose and James last summer. Rose pretty much knew from players around the league James didn’t have Chicago high on his list. I don’t think Rose had any problem if James came. I think the Bulls would be going through a lot of what the Heat is. I think the issue more was—and we saw it with that media day declaration he could be MVP—Rose prepared to play against these guys and believed he could be better. Even if we all just patted him, metaphorically, on the head. Last time I underestimate him.

Rose, by the way, has seen his three point percentage fall to 33 percent as he’s missed his last 11 over the last two games. He took extra shooting practice Saturday, and there were no reports of injury.

“I just need to see a shot go down,” Rose said after the Magic game. “My mid range was there. I’m still not able to get the three, but it’s not going to make me stop shooting.”

Knowing Rose, I’m looking for a big three point shooting game Sunday.

Meanwhile, if you are going to challenge these guys on the court you don’t go begging for them to join you. I think that’s really what all those veterans like Jordan and Bird and Magic meant about not going out to find a contender but developing one yourself.

Still, it is getting uncomfortable with the Heat, 43-19 to the Bulls’ 42-18. The Bulls are 2-0 in the three games series this week, so this one is more for stability and starting again for Miami. The Heat veterans, namely Wade, like to note that when the team won the title in 2006 it had an awful record in the regular season against the league’s top teams. The notion was they couldn’t compete against the best, like this Miami team, 1-8 against the league’s winningest teams.

But you get the right playoff matchup and you win a few games and you get on a roll and who knows. The Heat continue to live by this mantra.

“The big thing is you can’t turn the ball over against them,” said Thibodeau as Miami is virtually unstoppable in transition. “Your shot selection against this team is critical. Those long, quick jump shots that lead to long rebounds where they bust out and they go on you. Then, you’ve got to challenge their shots (the basic formula for the win in Chicago). The big thing is to get back, get set, protect the paint, then react out, challenge their shots. Then, you’ve got to finish your defense with the rebound.”

Spoelstra was illuminating before the Spurs game telling reporters he and Riley huddled after the Orlando game, as they do after every game, to discuss it and sat for a long time with no one saying anything. Watching Riley’s stricken look as he camera focused on him during that collapse, you could see a man who wants no part of coaching this Heat team.

So now it’s the stretch run for everyone, that last 20-game kick to home, and although the Heat has a difficult schedule this month, they are aiming at Sunday’s game as something of the turning point and measuring stick. They need that one.

And they may be springing an entirely new strategy and rotation on the Bulls. And then can the Bulls abide by those principles while the Heat invert its offense with Bosh moving out and LeBron coming in?

If Deng takes James as he mostly does, who takes Miller? Thibodeau doesn’t like to match down with teams and prefers to stay big, so it could be an intriguing test of wills in a game that will be over analyzed regarding the Heat.

As Adlai Stevenson said once about the media, he didn’t mind them using a microscope, but he didn’t think they needed to use a proctoscope.

It’s just the latest game of the century. At least for this week. Don’t miss it. Anyone planning parade routes yet?

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