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After three straight losses, the Heat are now tied with the Bulls for the second seed in the East. Chicago could move ahead Sunday.
The downside of Mike Bibby
LeBron James sung the praises of Mike Bibby last week as the Heat cleared room on their roster for the veteran point guard. Bibby brings assets to the table. He's a prolific 3-point shooter and knows how to find teammates in good spots. But Bibby also took his defensive liabilities to South Beach. We got a glimpse of the problems Bibby poses for the Heat on Friday night in San Antonio. The Spurs repeatedly broke down Bibby in the pick-and-roll and got into the paint at will. At that point, the Heat's wing defenders collapsed on Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, which left 3-point shooters open along the perimeter. The Heat are fortunate that Chicago's 3-point attack isn't nearly as potent. Erik Spoelstra can hide Bibby by placing him on Keith Bogans. But if the Heat cross-match Bibby, that means Dwyane Wade will need to spend considerable time guarding Derrick Rose. Wade is certainly up to the task -- he, as much as anyone else, can contain Rose off the dribble -- but do the Heat want Wade dealing with Rose for 50-60 possessions on Sunday?
Open up the lanes
Judging from the way the Heat tip-toed around the paint in Friday night’s loss to San Antonio, one might assume there was an invisible fence surrounding the lane. No, in reality, the Spurs just happened to keep three bodies in the paint at all times to discourage LeBron James and Dwyane Wade from floating into the basket area. No matter how many pick-and-roll actions the Heat ran, the Spurs sagged toward the rim, daring the Heat to beat them from the midrange. And the Heat fell into the trap, launching 18-footer after 18-footer. Packing the paint against the Heat was a successful defensive strategy on Friday night and it figures to be a major issue again during the Sunday matinee against the Bulls. Under Tom Thibodeau, Chicago’s defense has been as impenetrable as a Kevlar shield, but the Heat must find a way to exploit the seams. It all comes down to moving without the ball and distracting help defenders away from dribble penetration. Lately, shooters like Mike Bibby, Eddie House and James Jones have camped out on the perimeter, waiting for the kick-out. However, the lack of perimeter movement has the potential to stagnate the offense, making the Heat’s actions extremely predictable. Look for more basket cuts from Wade and more movement in general, as the Heat can’t afford to sit and watch the ball Sunday.
Dealing with Derrick Rose
We can argue about Rose's MVP résumé, but he's undoubtedly the saving grace of the Bulls' 16th-ranked offense. He's matured into one of the most lethal penetrators in the game, and learning to draw contact and collect free points at the line. Rose is also working off the ball a bit more, as well, finding opportunities running off screens. On Friday night, the Magic did a fairly nice job holding Rose in check, though he still racked up 24 points (such are the standards now for holding Rose in check). When Chicago initiated a high ball screen for Rose, the man defending the screener (often Dwight Howard or Brandon Bass) would drop into the paint to slow Rose's path to the basket. Rose still managed to find his way to the rim on several occasions, but he had to work much harder for those points. Considering the Heat's primary ball defenders on Rose, the big man -- Chris Bosh, Joel Anthony, Erick Dampier -- will have to serve as traffic cones when the Bulls run 1-4 and 1-5 pick-and-rolls for Rose. Failing that, James and Wade can expect a busy day helping off the Bulls' wings. And as fast as they are, they're not going to be terribly successful beating Rose to the rim from the corner.
Capitalize from downtown
When Pat Riley designed the Heat roster this summer, he deliberately identified players who could stretch the floor and knock down 3-point shots. Recently, things haven’t gone according to plan. The Heat shooters are trying to shake off their cold streak and for all the criticisms of the Big Three and coaching, the supporting cast has comparatively received a free pass. In the Heat’s last seven losses, the team has shot 33-for-136 from downtown, which translates to a 24.2 percent conversion rate. That includes a 2-for-12 stinker in the team’s last meeting against Chicago nearly two weeks ago. The slump has the potential to tie down the Heat’s offense, since not only does it obviously lead to missed shots but it also jeopardizes the trust between the stars and supporting cast. Every time a James Jones 3-pointer clanks off the rim, it could cause LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to pause next time Jones calls for the ball. It’s only human nature. Without those safety valves on the perimeter, the Heat’s penetrators aren’t nearly as effective in the attack. If the Heat do not take advantage of open looks on the perimeter, that leaves them with no margin for error elsewhere.
The Heat's head games
Is there such a thing as a "must-win" game in early March? Those of us who subscribe to advanced statistics will often disregard numbers like "0-8 against teams playing .700 ball" and 1-for-14 in potential game-tying or game-winning situations in the final 10 seconds of games as noisy stats with small sample size. But the way those stats have played out on the floor in crucial situations have to give us pause. It's important to note that the 2006 Heat carried similar red flags into the postseason and wrote a storybook ending, but right now the pressure is mounting in Miami. The Heat need to prove to themselves that they can execute their sets and play their game when it matters most.