How many times do you read the word “advantage” in sports? It’s used so frequently even in the face of the obviousness of what it implies. After all, what makes teams “bad” so often is a lack of advantage, or a lack of willingness to exploit that advantage. Josh Smith of the Atlanta Hawks is kept from being an elite player by a reluctance or inability to access his inherent advantage on the floor with his physical tools. In the NBA there’s player, tactical, circumstantial, home-court, and intangible advantage, just to name a few. All will be in play for Game 3 between the Heat and the Bulls.
The Heat have better players. That’s been pretty obvious from the first two games. There is no denying the fact that what led to the Bulls’ Game 1 victory wasn’t a superior roster, it was a deeper roster hitting on all cylinders, versus the Heat’s design of three players (Wade, James, and one other) playing to the best of their ability. If you rank all players on a scale of one to ten, with one being a D-League fill-in and ten being LeBron James/Derrick Rose, then yes, the Bulls’ final score will be higher. But if you rank all players on a scale of one to a hundred, the Heat’s total will be higher due to Wade and James both being in the 95+ range versus just one 80+ for the Bulls in Derrick Rose. Game 2 showed what happens when the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts for Chicago, and we just stack up players vs. players. This isn’t to say the Heat are a better team. They’re not, nor are they a worse team. These two are about as evenly matched as you’re going to find, a reflection of the Western Conference Finals which display the same trait. But the Heat have better players to rely on.
If Game 3 becomes a matter of “who has more talent” then the Heat win. We saw shades of that in Game 2, even as the Heat showed flashes of team cohesion thanks to Udonis Haslem’s spark. Conversely, if the advantage is defined by what group of players meshes together better, the Bulls have an excellent chance of stealing back homecourt. The best way for the Heat to disrupt the Bulls’ cohesiveness is with individual brilliance wearing them out, and the best way for the Bulls to combat the Heat’s elite superiority talent wise is to get back to swarming them with cohesive, communicative defense. And knock down a few shots, but that’s more tactical.
It’s safe to say many underestimated Erik Spoelstra’s defensive chops going into this series. It’s been a much closer defensive bout than anticipated. Were it not for some great efforts on the offensive glass by the Bulls, this series would be in dire shape for Chicago. That isn’t to take anything away from a sound gameplan of making up for their offensive deficiencies by creating extra possessions, it’s simply to point out the Bulls are still trying to find anything resembling a shooter’s touch. And that’s in large part due to how well the Heat have defended. Derrick Rose has been contained with multiple looks, and that’s prevented both of his threats. He hasn’t filled in with efficient scoring, and he hasn’t gotten teammates involved. When he has, they’ve missed semi-open looks, in part thanks to fantastic close-out defense by the Heat. That’s been in part responsible for the offensive rebounding woes (hard to grab a long rebound off a jumper when you’re diving out of bounds after running off the perimeter shooter), but it’s also helped keep the Bulls’ offense under wraps.
This tactical matchup continues in Game 3 with an added wrinkle. The Heat have shown their advantage in their reliance on LeBron James’ special talents, which means Tom Thibodeau has something to plan for as the game gets deep. It’ll be up to the Heat to either adjust with better opportunities for Wade and Bosh, or find new ways of creating space for James, who may not get as many ISO opportunities as he did in Game 2. It wasn’t a flawed approach from the Bulls to rely on Luol Deng who has played spectacularly against James in this series, but having seen James demonstrate that he cares not for Deng’s defense, the Bulls are likely to commit more resources against him.
How big was three full days off for Udonis Haslem, the savior of Game 2 for the Heat, coming back from injury and having played long minutes in the Heat win? Getting the extra break definitely favors Haslem, as well as the Heat stars who have to take the most pounding in this series. To be certain, the time off probably helped Derrick Rose’s ankle as well, but with the way the Chicago offense relies upon more personnel for production, the extra hours were a good thing for the Heat. The time off also holds a mental advantage to a degree. A short two day break and the Bulls don’t have to concentrate on the fact they’ve lost homecourt advantage, nor does it allow time for the Heat to bask in their own confidence, which has proven to be their downfall time and time again. How the extra time manifests itself will likely go a long way in deciding who has control after Game 3.
Two things here.
1. The Heat are well regarded as not having a strong home-court advantage due to a docile and late arriving crowd as the fashionable South Beach crowd is not exactly the rabid jumping madhouse of OKC or even the raucous basketball-intelligent crowds in Boston. Some have even argued that with the way the Bulls’ fanbase travels and all the transplants in Miami, this could be an even more divided crowd than first thought.
2. The Heat have not lost at home in the playoffs.
That second figure stands out, considering they faced a Boston crew more than capable of facing down an opposing crowd. Furthermore, the Heat crowd has been surprisingly loud in the playoffs, even with the “white out” one of the more ineffective and lame promotions you’ll find. So the home-court advantage isn’t as great as it is for say, OKC (who promptly loss home-court last night), but it is definitely an advantage for the Heat. The ability to sleep in your own bed, etc does a lot of good, and that comfort helps put the Heat in a position they want to be in mentally. On the other end of it, though, this is the Bulls’ comfort zone. Attacked, picked against, under bad conditions, struggling to regain home-court advantage in a hostile environment. If any team is well geared mentally to have their backs against the wall, it’s the Bulls.
Is Derrick Rose going to have three straight bad games? Is LeBron James really going to shed his non-clutch recent rep? Is Luol Deng really going to be contained this well? Is Carlos Boozer really not going to earn hardly an ounce of that massive contract? Is Udonis Haslem boing to be able to bring the emotional energy for a second straight game the Heat need? Has Mike Miller really become a “defense and hustle” player without a shot? Will Mario Chalmers play that terribly three games in a row? Will Kyle Korver continue to miss open looks? Can Taj Gibson possibly keep up this kind of performance?
And what about Wade?
There’s a mountain of questions that leave you dubious as to either team winning Game 3. Which is why it should be so much fun.
The advantage is clear, both teams have an advantage. Whichever has more or stronger ones will walk away with a Game 3 win.