Friday, May 13, 2011

Who will represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals?

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With Chicago's decisive Game 6 victory over Atlanta last night, the Eastern Conference Finals are now set. When the playoffs began, I predicted the Heat would beat the Celtics and the Bulls would beat the Magic to set up a matchup between the top two seeds. I missed on the Magic, but at least I got the right winners.

The Heat has ridden the coattails of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh so far in the playoffs with little contributions from other sources. James Jones has provided solid three-point shooting off the bench for Miami, making 16 of his 36 attempts from long range in 10 playoff games.

Jones' shooting has been huge for Miami, as Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers have struggled from distance and Mike Miller and Eddie House have been non-factors. The Heat need somebody to stretch the floor and allow James and Wade to penetrate, particularly against Chicago's stout interior defense. It doesn't matter which of the aforementioned guys step up, as long as one does.

Many will point to the Bulls' defensive prowess as a reason they will win this series, as well as their 3-0 record against Miami in the regular season. Let's not forget that the Celtics were 3-1 against the Heat in the regular season and the last time I checked, that didn't matter in the Eastern semifinals.

Throw out the regular-season numbers; they're meaningless. But the Bulls defense is legitimate. They have allowed less than 88 points per game so far in the playoffs, while the Heat has allowed slightly less than 89. It's not just Chicago that can play defense.

Offensively is where the Heat have a serious advantage, with James and Wade patrolling the perimeter. League MVP Derrick Rose is the offensive focal point for the Bulls, but he will need to improve his abysmal 41.8 percent playoff shooting for Chicago to have a chance. Rose has been held below 40 percent from the field in five of the Bulls' 11 games so far this postseason.

Many questioned Rose's true MVP merits despite him garnering a large percentage of the voting, but I didn't. Then again, Rose shot 44.5 percent during the regular season and considering his scoring volume and questionable offensive supporting cast, I thought that was a respectable enough number to warrant MVP candidacy.

But 41.8 is not. It's tough for me to see Rose improving on that number against a Miami defense that is far tougher than Orlando's or Atlanta's. They may lack a point guard that can contain Rose, but I think Dwyane Wade will end up spending a lot of time guarding the MVP. Wade is a much better defender than anybody Rose has seen in the playoffs so far and it wouldn't surprise me one bit to see him shoot under 40 percent in this series.

If that happens, the Bulls have no chance. I understand they have a big size advantage down low with Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah and that they out-rebounded Miami by over 10 boards per game in their three meetings this season. I said throw out the regular-season statistics, but that is one that may stick. And it will be Chicago's only chance to win this series.

I expect a lot of missed shots from Rose and considering the Bulls lack of shooters around him, with the exception of Kyle Korver and Luol Deng (who is shooting under 30 percent on three-pointers in the playoffs), Chicago may struggle to crack 90 points consistently, which they have done in seven of their 11 playoff games.

Unless Boozer and Noah crash the offensive boards hard and clean up their teammates' missed opportunities, long cold spells will be the norm for the Bulls' offense. If that's the case, this one could be over quickly.

The series will likely be played in the 80s, with any team who reaches 90 points looking good to win. Unless Rose can get back to his regular-season efficiency levels I don't think the Bulls can muster that many points in more than one or two games this series, while the Heat have two great scoring options in James and Wade and a third player in Bosh that has the potential to put up points as well.

The Heat was my favorite to come out of the East before the playoffs started and nothing I've seen in the two rounds since has changed my opinion. The Bulls have struggled through the first two rounds against inferior opponents, while the Heat just dispatched a veteran Celtics team in five games.

Miami was down late in Game 5 and it looked like Boston would steal the game and go back home looking to tie the series. But the Heat did something they've struggled to all season; close out a game late, led by James. If Miami has truly conquered that issue, they won't lose this series. I think they have.

Prediction: Miami wins, 4-2

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