Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bulls Fall to Heat in First Test of Rivalry this Season

Sorry, it took me a couple days to recover from the Bulls loss to the ESPN, I mean, Miami Heat on Sunday. As you would expect, a rivalry as intense as Bulls-Heat went down to the wire, with D Rose and LeBron James exchanging missed free throws, some weird officiating moves, and finally the D Rose miss that would have tied the game. This was the first of four games the teams will play, and I have a feeling that each one will match the intensity of this one - a gritty, all-out battle that has the same feeling as those epic playoff matches had last year. Here's hoping that the Bulls use this game as a lesson for the rest of them.

Look at that headline. I hate ESPN.
From the onset, it was clear just how much the Bulls miss Luol Deng. LeBron decided to make the first quarter his own personal showcase, with John Lucas the centerpiece of the show. Usually, when Deng is not hurt he covers LeBron, and at least does a much more admirable job than Ronnie Brewer or Rip Hamilton did early. But that doesn't matter. In the regular season, few NBA players are as consistently good as James is game in and game out. James makes things look so easy out there. He's 6'8, 260 pounds and runs like Derrick Rose. If he's not the most physically talented player in basketball history, he's near the top of the list. I would think that he would be up there with MJ, Dwight Howard, young Kobe, etc., and probably above all of them. He's just a freak.

Watching James in the open court is one part exhilarating and one part terrifying; as a basketball fan you know you're going to witness something special, but as a fan of the opposing team you know its going to make your team look stupid. He also loves his role - he runs around the court with a seemingly endless supply of energy, dunking over people, then staring them down, even if someone like John Lucas is one of the 5 shortest players in the league. Not that ESPN reporter Lisa Salters would think otherwise, telling LeBron in the post game that he dunked over Lucas, who is "not a small man." While this goes so far to show you the inherent bias that ESPN carries towards the Heat (they did market and televise The Decision, they personally assigned a reporter to cover the Heat last year, and they followed the Heat with a special section on their website called "The Heat Index"), it also explains what really matters to LeBron. He makes a remarkably athletic play, jumping over someone is 5'11 and finishing with the one-handed alley oop. But he then turns, stares down the helpless John Lucas, soaking up every minute in the hopes for a clip for his next commercial or the image for his next poster.

LBJ and D Wade - the new hated Bulls rivals
LeBron is the epitome of the modern NBA, cut from the same mold as Dwight Howard, where regular season statistics matter so much because they lead to big paydays, huge dunks that make it to Sportscenter are key because they enhance your image, and creating or embracing a persona (even if created by the media) is key to establishing your "brand." Players like James and Howard are unbelievably talented at basketball, but they're missing the key ingredient, the moxie, the edge, whatever you want to call it. That extra edge is what wins championships. Part of it stems from our modern era of nonstop ESPN glorification of highlights, part of it comes from the fact that these players are all buddies and play summer AAU basketball together growing up, and part of it is simply different personalities. I know it looks bitter for me to bitch about LeBron a couple days after he went off on the Bulls, but really, where is this when it matters? At the end of the day, who cares about staring someone down when you go home empty-handed after another empty performance in the playoffs. The Heat may well win the Championship this year if the Bulls don't get in their way. But as it stands right now, LeBron might be wise to drop the ridiculous antics, forget about his image, and keep up his torrid pace into the playoffs. The NBA and the game of basketball as a whole would be better off having one of its most talented players ever follow that mold.

Rose did it all
Sorry about that - back to the game. With Luol Deng and CJ Watson out, D Rose, certainly not at 100%, took it upon himself to match LeBron stride for stride the whole game. In the first quarter, the Heat came out and depantsed the Bulls. Rose picked up two quick fouls and the game turned into LeBron's personal dunk contest. Once Lucas was dunked over, Rose came back in and the Bulls started to settle down. The key for the Bulls, especially playing a team like Miami, is to stay completely disciplined on defense. If Miami gets loose balls, rebounds, or turnovers, they are unstoppable in the fastbreak. It's like turning lions loose on a helpless animal. But if the Bulls execute their halfcourt defense, they become a very formidable team that forces the Heat (and other teams) to hit jumpshots. I think this is why the Bulls play Miami tougher than many teams, because the strength of LeBron and Co. is certainly not outside shooting. Tied into this is the ability of the Bulls to crash the boards on both ends. This limits fastbreaks and creates both opportunities for the Bulls to extend their own possessions or limit possessions of other teams. Against Miami, the Bulls settled down and did just that. The problem was, for most of the game it was a flashback to the playoffs last season, where it became D Rose v. Miami.

Boozer needs to get it together
Besides Rose, no Bulls player had above 11 points. Rip Hamilton, the player signed to be the second option, was 4-16 shooting with 11 points. Granted, Rip was hurt most of the game, but that just shows you the Bulls this season. Either someone is hurt or under-performing, and then Derrick needs to take over again. Noah contributed 11 and 11, solid numbers from the guy. He also played outstanding defense and helped the Bulls with energy. And then there was Carlos Boozer. I've defended the guy here time and time again, but his performance against Miami, this year and last, cannot be excused. Where was the guy?? He had 10 points and 9 rebounds. The rebounds were big, but his lack of scoring and general disappearance for most of the game was terrible. Tom Thibodeau was forced to go to Taj Gibson for many of Boozer's minutes. Taj didn't do much better in the time in his 29 minutes against Boozer's 28, notching 8 points and 4 rebounds. But what Taj does do is play good defense. He doesn't completely whiff on nearly every play and thus force Noah to recover and essentially play two positions on defense. And when that happens, it saps Noah's strength. Boozer has to get his game against Miami in gear. No one cares about filling up the stat sheet against the Bobcats or Wizards. We need his offense and a slightly higher level defense than "half-assed" to get past Miami in the playoffs.

After the game, Rose was his traditional despondent self, taking the entire blame for the loss. I admire Rose for his leadership, competitiveness, and will to win - it's a few of the millions of things that I love about the guy. But just because he missed two free throws and the potential game-tying shot with 2 seconds left doesn't mean it was his fault. Rose dropped 34, 6 and 6. If anything - he was the only one doing anything. What about Boozer, the bench, Hamilton, Deng and Watson injuries, and quite honestly, the stellar play of James? The Bulls now know what it's going to take to get past Miami this year. They have to get and stay healthy, play within their system on offense and defense, and get someone, anyone, to contribute besides Rose. Isn't that what the Bulls have been trying to do? Why sign Boozer if he's not going to be there when it counts? Isn't Hamilton supposed to be that deadly mid-range shooter that will crush open jumpers after Rose crashes the lane?

In this shortened season, where practice time is at a minimum, the Bulls will have to both get healthy and iron out these issues. They're a veteran team, so I think they can get it by simply playing games. Sure, they can still cruise to a high seed, probably get a couple rounds into the playoffs, whatever. But Derrick Rose cannot beat Miami by himself. When it comes down to it in the 4th quarter, the Heat switch LeBron to cover Rose and we're screwed. Now, I still feel that this year can be special for the Bulls. Once we field a healthy team for a consistent stretch, I think we'll all see that. Not to mention we have the damn MVP, and he can carry us on most nights. But none of the games will matter as much as the next one against Miami on March 14th. There the Bulls can prove that they can take down their new hated rival, and do it in a way that carries over to the playoffs.