<
>

Bulls at Heat, Game 3: 5 things to watch

Heat at BullsNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

The Heat turned the tide in Game 2, but plenty of questions remain as the series moves to Miami.

Can the energy guys energize the Heat?

Something remarkable happened at the 0:26.7 mark of the third quarter on Wednesday night when Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade checked back into Game 2. Bosh, Wade, LeBron James, Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem shared the floor as teammates for the very first time.

While all the debates raged in recent months about who should play the majority of the minutes at center, or whether the Heat should go without a point guard down the stretch, it was easy to get that this five-man unit was the presumed crunch time lineup for the Heat.

Although they finished a minus-4 in approximately six minutes of floor time in Game 2, their presence underscored an important truth as the series moves to Miami on Sunday:

The Heat have options.

It's not a perfect menu, but with Haslem available and Miller serviceable, the versatility Erik Spoelstra envisioned having at his disposal at the outset of the season now exists.

Haslem and Miller combined for 41 crucial minutes, 15 points (13 of them Haslem's) and 12 rebounds. More than that, the Heat looked like the aggressors in the series for the first time when Haslem entered the game in the first quarter. He might not yet be 100 percent, but Haslem brought some fight to the court. Meanwhile, Miller still leads the league in floor-burn per minute.

Haslem and Miller won't win this series, but against a team that's pummeled the Heat on the boards and generally outworked them all season, these two guys have the will, skills and savvy to allow the Heat's reserve units to hang with the Bulls' bench. So long as they're healthy ...

Is Derrick Rose primed for a breakout?

It seems a bit silly to say that a guy averaging 24.5 points and seven assists per game in a series is still waiting to bust out, but that speaks to the outrageous talent of Rose. While he’s gotten his points, he hasn’t been able to do it efficiently, shooting 37.8 percent from the floor against the Heat defense.

Is his inaccuracy a product of the Heat’s swarming defense, or a 22-year-old just missing shots he normally makes? The Heat’s defense deserves some credit, even if Spoelstra didn’t want to count his blessings at Saturday’s practice. Walling off the paint area isn’t easy against a force like Rose, but they’ve managed to do that in the first two games. He has made just five buckets inside 10 feet in the two games (he normally hits five per game).

When Rose does muster a shot, the Heat have sent multiple bodies to contest his attempts. Mike Bibby has actually looked like a decent defender out there, routinely disrupting Rose’s shot release. The result is that Rose has shot just 31 percent on attempts within 10 feet in this series, which is down significantly from his regular-season rate of 55 percent.

Rose isn’t normally this off on his finishes and Bibby isn’t normally this adept as a defender. Sounds like a recipe for a breakout performance.

The Heat are cured from their rebounding issues, right?

Wrong. Sure, the Heat outrebounded the Bulls 45-41 in Game 2, but the Bulls still pulled down 17 offensive rebounds -- 32.7 percent of their misses. That’s a higher rate than the Bulls collect normally (29.4 percent), so the Heat are not out of the woods quite yet.

The Heat certainly improved in Game 2 on the boards, but it’s also worth pointing out that Joakim Noah sat on the bench for the majority of the second half. His absence -- in addition to Haslem’s presence -- eased the rebounding burden. When the Bulls center is on the floor this series, the Bulls have recovered 40 percent of their misses, compared to just 26 percent when the Florida product rides the pine.

The Heat still haven’t solved Noah, but Haslem may be the key. Following the Heat’s practice Saturday, Spoelstra said he feels much more confident about deactivating Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Erick Dampier now that he has Haslem to crash the boards. What most people may not know is that Haslem was the Heat’s best rebounder this season, even though he gives up several inches to his opponent. If Haslem is even 80 percent healthy, he renders Ilgauskas and Dampier obsolete on this squad.

Even after winning the rebounding edge in Game 2, the Heat have only a 44.9 rebound rate against the Bulls this season, which is still their worst rate against any team. The truth is that they need another 25-plus-rebound performance from James, Wade and Miller.

Will this be the game the Heat finally get out and run?

When the series started, Spoelstra was banking on the fact that the Heat's smaller, quicker lineup would create some transition opportunities. Makes sense, since no team in the NBA scored more points per possession on the break than the Heat.

So how's that plan working out against the Bulls?

Not so good. The Heat have managed only 16 possessions in transition over the first two games of the series (six fewer than Chicago, ironically), and have largely been confined to half-court basketball.

How can this be?

Virtually every fast break begins with either a rebound or a steal, and the Heat were atrocious on Chicago's glass in Game 1 and merely passable in Game 2. They also have yet to force the kinds of turnovers that ignite their patented "skirmishes," when James and Wade get out in the open floor and make magic.

With Haslem's return, the Heat have a player who can rebound and outlet with the best of them. Wade and James renewed their commitment on the glass and are well aware that those open-court opportunities are most lethal when they gobble up missed shots and bolt down the floor.

Has LeBron James entered "The Zone" (and is he staying awhile)?

It wasn't long ago when Heat fans would look up at the scoreboard, see a narrow margin, then worry. Critics reveled in the Heat's failures late in games and took particular pleasure in James' struggles.

There was nothing earth-shattering about LeBron's pair of stat lines in Chicago: 15-6-6 in Game 1 and 29-10-5 in Game 2. But the final minutes of the Heat's win on Wednesday night followed a familiar pattern: James has been a beast when it's mattered most in the postseason.

In the Heat's last three wins, James has seized control of the game in the final minutes of regulation, draining contested jump shots and bullying his way inside. When he threw up a rare miss on Wednesday night inside of two minutes, he simply followed his shot for the putback.

James' crunch-time player efficiency rating (PER) now stands at a gaudy 40.8 and he's effectively running the point for the Heat when the game is tight.

As a result, it seems like ages since we've heard about late-game execution.