Heat at Chicago: 5 things to watch

Tom ThibodeauGary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images

Tom Thibodeau has the Bulls playing the league's best defense.

Grinding it out against the Bulls' defense

It's hardly a surprise to see the Bulls under coach Tom Thibodeau ranked as the league's stingiest defense. Thibodeau was the architect of the Celtics' championship defense, one that's been replicated all over the league over the past three seasons. When you ask Erik Spoelstra how opponents are defending the Heat, he'll tell you that teams are loading up on the strong side by bringing an extra guy into the paint to help on penetration by Dwyane Wade and LeBron James (who is listed as day-to-day). No coach in the league has refined that general tactic more than Thibodeau, whose defensive units have used it to frustrate perimeter slashers for years. Thibodeau demands that every defender on the floor be poised to multitask: Apply ball pressure. Show hard on pick-and-rolls. After the initial action, recover by getting back into the paint. Make the next rotation. If the ball gets inside, contest the shot. With or without James on Saturday, the Heat will have to work for every shot. They'll have to combat that strongside pressure by patiently reversing the ball. Carlos Arroyo and Mario Chalmers will probably have the cleanest looks on the weak side, and all of the Heat's weakside threats will have to drain shots for the Heat to have a successful offensive night.

Life without LeBron?

The Heat sorely missed James’ contributions during Thursday night’s defeat at the hands of the Nuggets, but not where you’d most expect: on the defensive end. The Nuggets drilled 15-of-31 3-pointers on the night and that’s typically James’ domain. LeBron-less lineups with Wade and Chris Bosh struggled with closing out on swing passes and thus allowed a whopping 71 points in 25 minutes (equivalent to 133 points in a 48 minute game). The two-time MVP is so valuable defensively, despite the lack of blocks and steals, because he can cover long distances in short amounts of time. Shooters rarely get open when James patrols the perimeter. What does this mean for the Bulls matchup tonight? If LeBron doesn’t go (his status is still in flux), then you can expect more open looks for the Bulls’ 3-point shooters, Luol Deng, Derrick Rose and Kyle Korver. The Bulls aren’t nearly as deadly from downtown as the Nuggets, but they still have some firepower.

Finding Rose’s thorns

It used to be that teams could sag on Derrick Rose on the perimeter because he wasn’t a 3-point threat. But that’s changed now. Much to the rest of the league’s chagrin, the 22-year-old has added a 3-point shot to his already dynamic scoring arsenal, making him a nightmare for opponents to guard. Now, he can hit it from anywhere on the floor. But while Rose is always good for one or two jaw-dropping circus shots around the basket, the bigger picture tells a different story. The average point guard normally makes 59.1 percent of his layups. Rose? 58.6 percent, not what you’d expect from the incredibly athletic finisher. And he doesn’t get to the line as often as you’d like, either. The key is to contest Rose’s layups straight up without swatting aggressively and the Heat’s front line does a terrific job in this area -- especially Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who is as long as any player in the NBA. This will be a tough matchup for Arroyo and don’t be surprised if Spoelstra goes with the quicker, longer Chalmers for most of the game.

Dwyane Wade, defensive rover

As stellar as the Bulls have been defensively this season, they've been a decidedly mediocre offensive club, ranking 17th in offensive efficiency. The weak spot on the floor for Chicago has been the shooting guard spot. Keith Bogans gets the start for the Bulls, while Ronnie Brewer logs the majority of the minutes at the 2. Brewer is a unique, heady offensive player who can make smart reads and decisive cuts to the basket, and offers the kind of defensive effort Thibodeau requires from his wings. But in 918 minutes on the court this season, Brewer has made only 31 shots beyond 15 feet in 84 attempts. Both numbers are problematic for Chicago, because Brewer's lack of proficiency from distance has allowed opposing shooting guards to sag into the lane and make life more difficult for Rose and the other offensive threats. When it comes to roving shooting guards, Wade is the best in the business. His instincts are already fine-tuned toward disruption and flying around the floor looking for steals and deflections. Allow him to shirk his primary assignment and play the passing lanes and he'll wreak havoc on the Bulls' half-court game.

Booz cruise

After dabbling in the free agency summer sweepstakes, the Bulls ultimately settled on Carlos Boozer as their key acquisition in the offseason. Boozer continues to be one of the league's more formidable pick-and-roll players, though he and Rose are still finding their rhythm as a tandem. Defensively, Boozer is smarter than he is mobile. Allow him to defend in a straight post-up situation, and he'll use his bulk and wherewithal effectively. But force Boozer to move in a pick-and-roll scheme and he can be beat. Wade, in particular, should look to get Boozer backpedaling by attacking the Bulls off screens. If Bosh draws Boozer, he should be active in the half court by setting picks, then popping out to 18 feet where he can launch his jumper or drive to the hole, something he's been doing more willingly lately. The Bulls are very responsive with their help defense, but forcing them to do more of it by pressuring their most vulnerable defenders will help the Heat find shots.