LeBron James and the Heat will encounter plenty of resistance at the basket against Chicago.
How will the Heat stop Derrick Rose?
"He’ll see different bodies, different guys, different speeds, different lengths, and just try to keep him honest."
That's how LeBron James describes how the Heat will approach the Bulls' point guard, and it's consistent with the Heat's defensive strategy over the course of the season. As a defensive outfit, the Heat prefer to switch up their coverages to keep the opponent guessing, rather than commit themselves to a single tactic against ball handlers.
Rose will try to burst into the lane in isolation, but the high pick-and-roll at the top of the floor is his preferred mode of attack. That means the responsibility of containing Rose with a trap, a "hard show," or by corralling him away from the paint falls on the Heat's big men as much as the primary defender. Chris Bosh and Joel Anthony are both quick, smart and decisive against the pick-and-roll and understand the nuances of the task.
"You have to find that fine line between being aggressive and respecting his game," Bosh said. "You can't really run up on him. He's an amazing athlete. I think switching up the coverages, trapping him some, staying off of him some, just keeping him in front of us is going to be enough of a task. I think as long as he's in front of the big and we do our best to contain him until the guard can get back into the play, that's the best we can do."
So who will be that guard Bosh is referring to? According to the Heat, it might be any number of designees, from Mario Chalmers and Mike Bibby to Dwyane Wade and James. Erik Spoelstra has said that, given the import of the game, he has no reservations about assigning Rose to Wade or James for long stretches -- and that seems to be the best course of action for the Heat.
Can the Heat find open space against Chicago's league-leading defense?
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau was the architect of Boston's championship defense, a unit notorious for flooding the strong side. Where as most defenses try to maintain a floor balance and stay in close proximity to players away from the action (think San Antonio, Orlando or Philadelphia), Boston doubles down on its pressure.
When Spoesltra was asked on Saturday how Thibodeau's current Bulls squad approached that strategy -- pressuring the ball even if it means the back side of the defense is thin -- relative to his Boston squad, Spoesltra replied, "More."
"They'll keep on pulling," Spoelstra said. "There's always a third defender, and that third defender will come under the basket on virtually every possession and shift."
The only way to keep the defense honest is by moving the ball across the floor, where the Bulls will be stretched thin. The Heat did a very nice job at compromising the Celtics' defense -- both in Game 1 with James Jones parked in the weakside corner and in Games 4 and 5 by utilizing James on duck-ins and baseline cuts.
Against Chicago, they'll need more of the same, along with a commitment to keep Wade on the move with off-ball actions. Because no matter how potent James and Wade are with the ball in their hands, they simply can't beat this Bulls team consistently off the dribble.
Who won’t be guarded by LeBron?
The Bulls may have the MVP, but the Heat have LeBron, the most versatile player in the game. James has guarded everyone 1-through-5 in the regular-season matchups and Spoelstra indicated Friday that he intends to stick James on anyone from Rose to Noah.
James’ positional flexibility will be a key to this series. While James gives up a few inches on Noah, he wins the battle of weight, strength and power. James can also try his hand at guarding Rose, a weapon the Heat will employ like they have all season.
But more than anything, James’ ability to guard multiple positions on defense allows Spoelstra to create mismatches on the floor and make it difficult for Thibodeau to play Carlos Boozer, a defensive liability, on the floor. If the Heat go small with James at the 4 and Bosh at the 5, where does that leave Boozer? In the past, Thibodeau has assigned Noah on Mike Miller and Boozer to Bosh, but that keeps Noah outside the paint and James Jones should be far more effective as a sharpshooter than Miller was this season.
It’s worth keeping an eye on how often Spoelstra gets creative with James’ assignments. He will likely start James out on Luol Deng, but the Heat have been most effective when they go small and put pressure on the opposing defense to run and stay airtight on rotations in the half court. We’ve seen James’ defensive flexibility unlock Spoelstra’s unconventional lineups before, but we haven’t seen anything yet.
Can the Heat fix their rebounding woes against Chicago?
The Bulls have crushed the Heat in the battle of the boards this season. Of all the available rebounds in this series, the Bulls have collected 57 percent of them, which is higher than their normal rate of 53.5 percent. The Bulls flaunt a formidable front line of Deng, Boozer and Noah, which demands the Heat’s guards to crash the boards. Wade and James are two of the best wing rebounders here in the playoffs, but they can’t do it all.
The biggest concern for the Heat is that their rebounding issues against Chicago got worse with Anthony, the Heat’s new starting center, on the floor. With him on the court during the regular season, the Bulls pounced on 60.2 percent of the available boards and a third of their own misses. The Heat can’t sustain those kind of numbers this series if they want a chance at the Finals.
Anthony is one of the worst rebounding centers in the league, so the Heat will depend on the Big Three in that department more than ever. The star trio successfully compensated for Anthony’s shortcomings in the Boston series, but the Celtics are a below-average rebounding team; the Bulls are the best.
Now, Anthony didn’t play in the last matchup between these two teams, and he’s been critical to the Heat’s success here in the playoffs, so this is one of the biggest unknowns in the series. Can the Heat keep the Bulls off the boards, even with Anthony on the floor? The Heat will have no choice but to demand a collective effort from all directions.
How important is depth and can the Heat survive without a lot of it?
Heat president Pat Riley and Bulls general manager Gar Forman shared the NBA's Executive of the Year award this past week and they couldn't have achieved the distinction more differently. Riley pulled off the most impressive free-agent haul in NBA history by snagging James and Bosh, while re-signing Wade. Meanwhile, Forman stitched together a patchwork of smart role players and specialist to complement Rose.
The Heat have proved they don't need a lot, so long as James, Wade and Bosh deliver par performances. But the Bulls are likely to frustrate at least one or two of the Heat's three primary scorers. If and when that happens, the Heat will need something -- anything -- from a member of the supporting cast. Whether it's a series of 3-pointers from Jones or Mario Chalmers, or the resuscitation of Bibby or Miller, someone will have to chip in.
Defensively, the Heat are keying in on Rose, but the Bulls have been a resilient team on nights when Rose turns in one of those 9-for-24 nights from the field. Boozer turned a corner at the end of the Atlanta series. If the Heat choose to trap Rose off those pick-and-rolls, the back-line big man will need to sprint out to contest Boozer from 18 feet. If the Heat aren't careful, they can get burned by Kyle Korver off the bench, Ronnie Brewer cutting baseline, Joakim Noah sneaking inside when the rest of the defense swams Rose and Deng catching and slashing off the weak side.