Miami Heat's James drives against Chicago Bulls' Deng in first half NBA game in Miami

PBT NBA Playoff Preview: Chicago Bulls vs. Miami Heat

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SEASON RECORDS

Chicago: 45-37, five seed in the East

Miami: 66-16, one seed in the East, best record in the NBA

PLAYOFF RECORDS

Chicago: Beat the Brooklyn Nets 4-3

Miami: Swept the Milwaukee Bucks 4-0

SEASON SERIES

The teams split the four meetings with two wins apiece. The Bulls snapped the Heat’s 27-game winning streak on March 27.

KEY INJURIES

The Bulls are likely to be without Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng at least to start the series, just as they were for their Game 7 win in Brooklyn over the Nets. There is no change to the status of Derrick Rose, who is expected to continue to be out for the rest of the playoffs.

Dwyane Wade missed Game 4 against the Bucks with a sore knee, but will have had eight days to rest by the time Game 1 against the Bulls tips off on Monday. He’s expected back.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession) – PLAYOFFS ONLY

Chicago: Offense 102.3 (9th in the postseason), Defense 104.9 (Tied-10th in the postseason)

Miami: Offense 108.6 (4th in the postseason), Defense 91.5 (3rd in the postseason)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES:

Rest or rust for Miami? The Heat have been so dominant in winning 41 of their last 43 games that sadly, it’s come to worrying about whether or not an eight-day layoff between the first and second round of the playoffs should be cause for concern. It isn’t. If Miami shows any signs at all of being out of sync, it won’t last beyond the first quarter of Game 1. The Bulls would be wise to maximize that opportunity to the fullest should it actually present itself.

For the Bulls, it’s all about defense: In order for the Bulls to have a shot in this series, they’ll need to contain LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, while still managing to get out and contest Miami’s three-point shooters. (Oh, is that all?) It starts with scoring enough so that Miami is taking the ball out of the net instead of off the glass, where the Heat can be as dangerous as any team in the league if they’re able to get out in transition. Even containing Miami’s scoring on the secondary break can be a problem for defenses to stop, so finding that balance between crashing for offensive rebounds and getting back to limit fast break opportunities will be critical for the Bulls, who will have the best chance to slow the Heat while defending them in traditional halfcourt sets.

Miami was second in the league during the regular season in three-point shooting percentage (trailing only the Golden State Warriors), and was sixth in the league in attempting more than 22 shots per game from beyond the arc. A lot of that comes from drive-and-kick actions from James and Wade, so playing team defense on the slashers with the interior players while staying at home on the shooters (or at least making sure to close out on them with purpose) is going to be another area of concentration defensively for the Bulls.

For the Heat, it’s all about intensity: The Bulls play extremely hard, all night,  every night, no matter who is or is not in their lineup. The intensity with which Chicago approaches every single possession is the reason that despite the multitude of injuries the team has dealt with this season, it was still able to win a Game 7 on the road to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

The injuries to Deng and Hinrich that will likely keep them out for the first game or two of this series will hurt the Bulls overall, but it won’t hurt what they do offensively. Much like the Spurs, the Bulls are a system team that doesn’t rely too heavily on one or two players to carry the bulk of the scoring load on a nightly basis. If Nate Robinson, for example, isn’t forcing the issue and is converting at a relatively acceptable percentage, then Tom Thibodeau will ride him as long as possible. If not, he has no problem going elsewhere to get the desired results.

Miami is far and away the better team in this series. The only thing that can even the playing field for Chicago is if the Heat decide to cruise for extended stretches, and let the Bulls gain confidence while they’re still expending maximum energy.

OUTLOOK

The injuries to Deng and Hinrich are a much bigger deal in this series than they turned out to be for the Bulls against the Nets. Hinrich is excellent defensively, and Deng can legitimately impact the game on both ends of the floor. Without those two, there is much less room for error for the Bulls, especially opening on the road against the defending champs.

Expect Miami to impose its will early in this series to crush any hope the Bulls might have of stealing a game or two to try to make it interesting. Chicago will continue to play hard, but the team isn’t likely to have enough to beat the Heat more than once, and even that seems like a bit of a stretch.

PREDICTION

Heat to sweep in four games.

Spurs honor Kobe Bryant in his last game in San Antonio (VIDEO)

LOS ANGELES - MARCH 30:  Kobe Bryant #8 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands next to Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs on March 30, 2006 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.  The Spurs won 96-85. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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The Kobe Bryant farewell tour has gone all around the NBA, but some stops are more emotional than others. His final trip to San Antonio certainly qualifies — the Spurs and Lakers have played each other in the playoffs eight times in his career, including twice in the Western Conference Finals (the Lakers won both times). The only player who has rivaled Bryant’s longevity is Tim Duncan, and the Lakers and Spurs were the two most dominant teams of the 2000s, winning nine of the 12 championships from 1999 to 2010 between them.

So, of course, the Spurs had an elaborate tribute video planned for Bryant. The video ran two and a half minutes and featured narration from Gregg Popovich, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Watch it below:

Report: Clippers’ Austin Rivers has broken hand, out 4-6 weeks

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29:  Austin Rivers #25 of the Los Angeles Clippers scores on a layup past D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers during a 105-93 win at Staples Center on January 29, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The Clippers are without Blake Griffin for the next few weeks as he recovers from a broken hand stemming from an altercation with an equipment manager. Now, the Clippers have lost backup point guard Austin Rivers to the exact same injury, albeit not in the same circumstances, obviously.

The loss of Rivers isn’t as devastating as the loss of Griffin, but given the Clippers’ lack of depth, it’s certainly not ideal. Now, Chris Paul‘s only backup is Pablo Prigioni.

Warriors hold off late Thunder run to remain undefeated at home

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For once, a marquee matchup involving the Golden State Warriors lived up to its billing. Their much-hyped meetings with the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs were anticlimactic blowouts nearly free of drama. And for the first half on Saturday night’s 116-108 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, it seemed like the defending champions were headed for another snoozer. They led by as much as 20, and completely outmatched the Thunder on both ends of the floor.

But the Thunder rallied behind a surprising defensive effort in the second half and some solid play from Enes Kanter. Plus, you know, Kevin Durant, who led all scorers with 40 points and gave the normally unflappable Draymond Green fits defensively. They tied the game at 104 before Golden State pulled away.

Despite the huge first-half lead, the Warriors weren’t their usual selves. Stephen Curry shot 1-for-8 from behind the three-point line, and triple-double machine Draymond Green scored just nine points. Golden State’s most consistent player was Harrison Barnes, who has probably read the speculation that the Warriors would have to dump him to land Durant this summer. He hit three three-pointers and shot 8-for-14 overall on the way to 19 points.

The Warriors’ bench carried them for stretches, outscoring Oklahoma City’s reserves 42-17.

Despite the Thunder’s late run, this was a statement win for the Warriors. They sent the message that, even when they aren’t in total control from start to finish, they can still pull away from other elite teams. The Thunder have given them the toughest challenge of any team they’ll likely have to face in the late rounds of the playoffs this spring, and it’s to their credit that they took the first-half punch and came back to make it a game. But the Warriors are on a different level from the rest of the league, and they showed that clearly on Saturday.

Kevin Durant brushes off free-agency speculation: “Once that time comes, I’ll make that decision”

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 05:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives on Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on January 5, 2015 in Oakland, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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It goes without saying that with the Thunder and Warriors playing each other for the first time on Saturday night, Kevin Durant free-agency talk has been at an all-time high. The hot rumor this week is that the Warriors are the frontrunners to land Durant this summer, which would shake up the league like nothing since LeBron James going to Miami.

Obviously, all parties were going to be asked about it before the hotly anticipated game. And obviously, all parties were going to downplay it. That’s exactly what happened.

Here’s what Durant said, via the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Rusty Simmons:

“Once that time comes, I’ll make that decision. I’ll sit down and talk to my closest friends and family and figure it out, but right now, I’m just trying to be the best basketball player I can be every single day. I have to be at a high level to lead every day at practices, shootarounds and games, and that’s a tough task. I can’t focus on anything else, other than that.”

Warriors coach Steve Kerr also downplayed the speculation:

“I don’t know why anybody would talk about anything but the fact that we’re 45-4 and have a hell of a team,” said Kerr, who hasn’t addressed rumors about Durant favoring the Bay Area as a future destination with his players. “Why would anybody talk about some different team, future stuff and other players?

“Focus on our team. We’re pretty good.”

On both sides, that’s the appropriate way to respond publicly. Not that this is going to go away anytime soon. They play each other two more times this season, once in Oklahoma City and once more in Oakland, and this is going to get brought up then, too. And just like Saturday, nobody will give a definitive answer. Nor should they. Nobody will know anything until July 1. But until then, it will be impossible to quiet the chatter.