Sizing up the Eastern Conference finals
Here. We. Go.
It's MVP Derrick Rose versus two-time MVP LeBron James. Dwyane Wade versus his hometown. Bosh versus Boozer. Spo versus Thibs. The Heatles against the team they spurned in the offseason then lost to three times during the regular season.
But this is the playoffs. Sunday night, we tip off with the score 0-0 and nothing but legacy, bragging rights and the Eastern Conference title on the line. Ready?
To set the stage, we asked five writers for their forecasts:
1. Who will be the best player in the Miami-Chicago series?
Danny Savitzky, Nets Are Scorching: Derrick Rose is the easiest answer, because the Bulls cannot win the series without a titanic offensive performance from him. Dwyane Wade has looked fantastic. But I'll go with LeBron James here: Luol Deng is a solid defender, but LeBron will have a size advantage whenever Deng's off the floor.
Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: Defensively Chicago won't have a lot of answers for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. But Miami will have even fewer for MVP Derrick Rose, who will be the MVP of this series as well, as he shreds Miami's PG combo of Mario Chalmers and Mike Bibby. Rose will be exceptionally aggressive getting to the basket. It could get ugly.
Danny Nowell, Magic Basketball: LeBron James. Though Derrick Rose carries the Bulls' offense and Dwyane Wade occasionally served as "the guy" against the Celtics, I think LeBron has the monkey off his back now and an easier path to a title than he might have expected. He's the game's most versatile threat; he just beat a Tom Thibodeau-style defense, and I think he smells blood in the water.
Mark Haubner, The Painted Area: Although they canceled each other out of MVP contention, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade remain better players than Derrick Rose, especially because of greater impact on defense. Choosing between the Miami superstars? Whew, feels almost impossible these days. I'll give Wade a razor-thin edge in the expectation that he again sets the tone as the Heat's primary aggressor.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: I know we've spent all season trying to determine if Derrick Rose is the league's most valuable player or Dwyane Wade is the Heat's best closer. But LeBron James is still the best player in the NBA and he'll be the best player in this series. The question is whether he'll inspire his teammates to step up.
2. Which player(s) will you be watching most closely?
Danny Savitzky, Nets Are Scorching: Painstaking help defense is the only recourse to stopping the Heat, as James and Wade can't really be defended one-on-one. Joakim Noah tends to be everywhere, and he will have to be everywhere to protect the paint and stop that devastating penetration attack. It should prove wildly entertaining to watch him operate around the rim.
Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: Carlos Boozer could be the key. If he plays near the level he did in the Bulls' close-out game against the Hawks, this series could go either way. If Chris Bosh runs circles around him, the Bulls' chances of advancing are slim. Bosh is in a similar situation, but his safety net of James and Wade gives him more leeway.
Danny Nowell, Magic Basketball: The Miami PG/C combos. Though Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony have often looked better, Mike Bibby and Zydrunas Ilgauskas might provide the sort of floor spacing that troubles the Bulls. Five Bulls in the paint can't collapse on LeBron if the Picasso of the flat-footed 17-foot jump shot is on his game.
Mark Haubner, The Painted Area: Certainly the three superstars, but the Boozer-Bosh matchup should be critical. Boozer's Game 6 breakout was a good sign for Bulls fans. Kyle Korver could be an interesting barometer -- he can add oft-needed offensive punch, so exploiting him on D could be an underrated key. Also, I love watching the nightly help-defense clinics put on by big men from both teams.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: The two most disappointing players on each team are Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer, and these guys will be the ones to watch. Bosh no longer has to deal with the pressure of overcoming Kevin Garnett. Boozer just has to out-produce Chris Bosh inside. Both players have a chance to break their own stigmas.
3. What is the potentially fatal flaw for each team?
Danny Savitzky, Nets Are Scorching: For the Bulls, there is always a danger of offensive stagnancy. If the role players don't hit their shots, Rose will put the burden to score on his back, which can be either amazing or self-destructive.
For the Heat, their corps of shooters isn't truly reliable. If Mike Bibby, James Jones, Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller aren't converting open looks, the Bulls' defense is going to stack the paint and eat the Heat up.
Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: The Bulls' fatal flaw is their heavy reliance on Rose. They need consistent effort from the supporting cast, especially if Rose goes cold or aggravates his ankle injury.
For the Heat, their tendency to lose focus under the intense scrutiny is a concern. It's always an adventure when adversity makes an appearance in the Heat camp.
Danny Nowell, Magic Basketball: Miami is going to need its inconsistent perimeter role players to step up and make the Bulls pay for hard rotations. If they don't, their Big Three will find the paint a brick wall.
Chicago's offense might stall if Boozer isn't at his best, but he won't get the wide-open face-up shots he did in Game 6 against the Hawks.
Mark Haubner, The Painted Area: Given the quality of both defenses, offensive execution could be the do-or-die factor for both teams. Chicago and Miami are able to run fluid team offense, yet both can also sometimes lean on isolation play -- tough sledding against these team D's. Can these teams stay disciplined in running their offensive sets? Can the superstars convert their isolation opportunities?
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: For Chicago: How do you slow down LeBron and Wade enough to contain the Heat attack? They combined for 20 free throw attempts per game against Boston. Can Chicago limit that?
For Miami: The fatal flaw could be its defensive boards. The Bulls had the NBA's fourth-highest offensive rebounding percentage, and against Miami, Chicago grabbed 57 percent of available total rebounds.
4. Chicago won 62 games and Miami 58. Is this the real NBA Finals?
Danny Savitzky, Nets Are Scorching: If that means that this series features the league's best two teams, it's quite possibly the case. But there's something refreshing about matching two teams from opposite conferences that play each other only twice a season, and that makes the actual Finals especially mystical.
Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: The real Finals are played in June. This is by far the most intriguing matchup, with the three best players alive. But don't be fooled. It's better to win a boring NBA Finals than to be a part of a more intriguing third-round matchup. Ask the Spurs.
Danny Nowell, Magic Basketball: No. Even leaving aside that the Bulls have looked pretty mortal this postseason, either the Mavericks or the Thunder could give the winner of this one a heck of a series. Both of those teams could exploit Miami's or Chicago's weaknesses, and even if the East winner is favored, I think the Finals will be hard fought.
Mark Haubner, The Painted Area: No way. All three remaining teams in the West have played better in the playoffs than the Bulls, who've had their ups and downs against two teams that had negative scoring margins in the regular season and wouldn't have even made the postseason in the West. The Bulls looked great in closing out Atlanta, but they have more to prove.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Both of these teams are incredibly talented and extremely capable of moving on and winning the championship. But dismissing the Mavericks and the Thunder (if they move past Memphis) would be a huge mistake. There is a lot of firepower left in the Western Conference.
5. Who wins?
Danny Savitzky, Nets Are Scorching: I'll say the teams' defenses are a wash, which means offensive performance will be the deciding factor. Unless Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Kyle Korver step up (and I don't see that happening four times), the Heat have the personnel advantage to score more efficiently. Heat in seven.
Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: The Heat will win in six games. The combo of Wade and James -- the closest thing to Jordan and Pippen, and in some ways better -- will be too much for the upstart Bulls. And it may come down to this: playoff experience. Wade and James have been here before, and that will certainly come in handy.
Danny Nowell, Magic Basketball: The Heat. This year's MVP award aside, LeBron is the best player in the game with a better shot at winning than he's ever had. Bosh has awakened, Wade is clicking and the Heat's defense has been great. With Boozer injured and Deng presumably chasing King James, I don't think the Bulls have the legs to match the Heat's firepower.
Mark Haubner, The Painted Area: Miami in six. Both teams are great defensively, but the Heat are a significantly better offensive team. Chicago's erratic postseason performance against lesser teams has strengthened my suspicion that they overachieved in the regular season. Give Chicago two wins on last-second Miami misses (natch), and still, the Heat win comfortably in six games.
Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: It's hard to feel confident in picking against either team, but I will go with the Bulls in six games. If Udonis Haslem were healthy and had showed he was ready to play against Boston, I'd feel better about Miami's ability to rebound against Chicago. But keeping the Bulls off the offensive boards could prove to be too difficult.
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