Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Bulls vs. Heat

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SEASON RECORDS
Bulls: 62-20 (No. 1 seed in East)
Heat: 58-24 (No. 2 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Chicago swept the season series 3-0. The most recent game was in early March, it’s safe to say both these teams are a little different right now. Still, a sweep.

PLAYOFF SERIES
Bulls: defeated Indiana Pacers 4-1, defeated Atlanta Hawks 4-2
Heat: defeated Philadelphia 76ers 4-1, defeated Boston Celtics 4-1

SERIES SCHEDULE (times Eastern)

Game 1 – Sun. May 15 at Chicago, 8:00 p.m.
Game 2 – Wed. May 18 at Chicago, 8:30 p.m.
Game 3 – Sun. May 22 at Miami, 8:30 p.m.
Game 4 – Tue. May 24 at Miami – 8:30 p.m.
Game 5 * Thu. May 26 at Chicago – 8:30 p.m.
Game 6 * Sat. May 28 at Miami – 8:30 p.m.
Game 7 * Mon. May 30 at Chicago – 8:30 p.m.

Every game broadcast on TNT.

KEY INJURIES
Bulls: Carlos Boozer will play through a case of turf toe, which has slowed him through the playoffs but didn’t seem to bother him in Game 6 in Atlanta.
Heat: Udonis Haslem is back and playing, and while there are some conditioning issues to be worked out the Heat will take all the depth up front they can get.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per possession)
Bulls: Offense 105.4 (12th in NBA); Defense 97.4 (1st in NBA)
Heat: Offense 109.3 (3rd in NBA); Defense: 100.8 (5th in NBA)

THREE KEY BULLS

Derrick Rose: Interesting bit of work over at Teamrankings.com, looking at the percentage of offense Derrick Rose uses when you count in assists, shots, free throws, all of it. In the playoffs, 42.2 percent of Bulls possessions end with Rose making a play when he is on the floor. Only one person — Dwyane Wade in 2006 — has used a higher percentage of his team’s offense in the playoffs (and won a title). Rose is everything to the Bulls. The Heat have two very good defenders to throw at Rose — Wade and Mario Chalmers — and like the Hawks the Heat will trap and do everything they can to get the ball out of his hands. Rose is going to get knocked around. How well he can withstand that and still be efficient will remain the key to the Bulls offense. Also, in the regular season the Heat were good at not fouling Rose, but he needs to get to the line this series.

If Erik Spoelstra decides to use Mike Bibby on Rose, the Heat deserve what they get.

Carlos Boozer: Someone else has to step up and take the scoring pressure off Rose in this series. It should be Boozer, and if he plays like he did in Game 6 it will be. He worked hard off the ball to get to open spaces for a game, his midrange was falling, he needs to do that all of the next series. He will have one of a couple good defenders on him (Joel Anthony or Chris Bosh) but Boozer has to have a good series for the Bulls to have a chance. Luol Deng could easily be substituted in here, the basic rules are the same.

Taj Gibson: Gibson represents the entire Bulls bench — this is one of the biggest advantages the Bulls have, some real depth. The Heat’s bench has been better than advertised and neither the Sixers nor Celtics have taken advantage of it. But the Bulls must. Gibson has to provide a scoring spark off the bench, and the Bulls bench cannot let on the defensive end of the floor.

THREE KEY HEAT

Dwyane Wade: On the defensive end of the floor, he is going to spend time on Rose and he must be physical with the guy at the heart of the Bulls offense. Then, at the other end of the floor, he (and LeBron) needs to be able to penetrate into the paint the way they did against the Celtics. The Bulls will struggle to matchup on Wade one-on-one, but their help defense is much better than the Celtics right now. He has to work off the ball, he has to move the ball to the weak side. He’s going to have to have a monster series.

Chris Bosh: Things are not about to get easier for Bosh — he just had Kevin Garnett on him, now he’s likely to have Joakim Noah (or Joel Anthony, either way a long and active defender). Bosh sets a lot of the screens for the Heat’s pick-and-roll and while Noah is very good at recover to the rolling big man, Bosh needs to make him pay. Bosh needs to be active on the glass at both ends. He was shut down by Kevin Garnett in the Heat’s loss last series, he cannot be shut down this series for the Heat to get through. Also, he will be doing a lot of trapping and spending a lot of time trying to keep Rose out of the paint.

Mario Chalmers: He is the other guy who will spend a lot of the series matched up on Rose. The Heat need to make Rose inefficient, to trap him and get the ball out of his hands — to make someone else on the Bulls beat them. A big part of that will fall to Chalmers, expect him to get a lot more run than Bibby. If we see a lot of Bibby, the Bulls are in trouble in this series.

OUTLOOK

This is the era we live in — last June the Heat had Wade and not much else, the Bulls had Rose and a couple nice role players but were not sure how to get to the next level. Look at them now, meeting for the rights to go to the finals, the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference.

And this is going to be a real battle.

Rose is, without a doubt, amazing. But he is about to run into a defense far more athletic than he has seen in the playoffs. The Hawks had some success getting the ball out of Rose’s hands with traps and doubles, but the Heat have better defenders and a far more consistent commitment to defense than anything the Bulls have run into so far this series. Rose has to still be effective and he has to draw fouls.

The Bulls have to get more and more consistent scoring from other places — Deng and Boozer are logical choices. In the regular season meetings the Bulls hit very well from the midrange (47 percent, up from 39 percent usually). They will need to do that again, plus they need Kyle Korver or someone else to knock down threes.

The other key for the Bulls to score, they need to get offensive rebounds. That is one place they can dominate.

For the Heat, they are about to run into the best defense they have seen this postseason. Their advantage is they essentially just played against it — the Celtics also run the Tom Thibodeau defense. The Bulls run it better right now, but the principles of working off the ball and having Wade, LeBron and Bosh all actively involved together at the same time remain.

One interesting thing to watch will be the Heat’s pick-and-roll — primarily Bosh sets the high screen for the Heat pick-and-roll, but that will bring out one of the best big men defenders in the game to deal with it in Noah. His ability to hedge out and disrupt the ball handler then recover to the rolling big man is as good as anybody in the league. If he can slow a key Heat play, it will give the Bulls a big advantage.

PREDICTION

This is going to be one hard-fought series. One very entertaining series. A must watch series if you are a basketball fan. Not high scoring, but great to watch. In the end, the Heat’s defense will be more disruptive and able to slow the Bulls offense enough to pull out the wins. The Bulls will certainly slow the Heat down, but their big three they will still get some key transition points (generated by the defense) and make the midrange shots they missed in the regular season. That will be enough.

Heat in 6.

Three Things to Know: Will Lakers’ lack of shooting spoil more than LeBron’s debut?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Lakers’ shooting clanks off rim, ruins LeBron James’ Laker debut. Will it ruin more? Since the day LeBron took his talents to South Beach the formula has been the same: Surround LeBron with shooters, including bigs so teams can go four out around him, space the floor and let LeBron carve up defenses and find those shooters. The result was eight straight trips to the Finals.

Magic Johnson sold LeBron on a different philosophy if he came to Los Angeles — fill the roster with other playmakers. “It takes the pressure off of him. He doesn’t have to make every play. That’s what wears him out, what wears him down,.. We’ve got guys that can make plays on their own so he can relax on offense some. And also, we’re a fast-breaking team, so we’re not just going to be throwing it down to him. We’re going to be out and running.”

In the Lakers’ first game, the lack of shooting was critical to their 128-119 loss. The Lakers were 7-of-30 from three in the game (23.3 percent) and 0-of-7 on corner threes. Brandon Ingram missed a couple wide-open corner threes early and was 0-of-4 from deep. Kyle Kuzma was 1-of-7, Lance Stephenson 0-of-3, Lonzo Ball 1-of-4. Throw in that the Lakers were 17-of-44 (38.6 percent) as a team on uncontested shots overall for the night (stat via Cleaning the Glass), and you have the portrait of a team that can’t knock down shots.

That lack of shooting proved to be an issue later when Rondo and Stephenson tried to initiate the offense but struggled to find passing lanes to cutters because defenders sagged off and dared them to shoot.

There were plenty of positives for the Lakers. That started with LeBron himself, who had 26 points and 12 rebounds on the night.

Also, the Lakers played fast and things worked when they did — 24.2 percent of Laker possessions started in transition and they scored a ridiculous 1.71 points per possession on those. Plus, they were just fun to watch at that pace.

But it was in the halfcourt that the offense bogged down (0.89 points per play). It wasn’t just the shooting that was a problem, the Lakers struggled on the glass (especially when they went small) and Portland grabbed the offensive rebound on 37.5 percent of their missed shots. The Lakers’ lack of continuity showed as well, particularly on defense.

Portland was rusty, too, but the Blazers shot 13-of-37 from three, 35.1 percent, which is not fantastic, but they made six more threes than the Lakers and that goes a long way to a nine-point win.

Magic compared this roster he and Pelinka built to Showtime and all the playmakers they had — and I’ll give him this, the roster the Lakers have now is fun. It’s entertaining. When they play fast you want to tune in, and they scored 70 points in the paint.

But the game has evolved since the ‘80s. Shooting matters. A lot. (And those Lakers had shooters, from Jamal Wilkes in the corner through Byron Scott, but we digress.) The Lakers are going to have better shooting nights than they did in Portland, but this trend of not shooting well enough likely is not going away and is going to cost them more in a deep West loaded with teams who like to bomb-away from three. The Lakers’ shooting is going to be an ongoing issue.

Next up for Los Angeles? Houston. The three-point disparity may be even worse… but that is going to be an entertaining game to watch.

2) Watch Miami’s Kelly Olynyk’s game-winning putback with 0.2 seconds left on the clock. Dare we say it: The Washington Wizards missed Dwight Howard in this one. A scrappy Miami team grabbed the offensive rebound on 42.9 percent of their missed shots on Thursday night and that was the difference in the game — including the game-winner from Kelly Olynyk.

Olynyk saves some of his best games for Washington. Remember Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals, when then-Celtic Olynyk went off for 26 points, 14 in the fourth quarter, to get Boston the win? Wizards fans do.

3) Markelle Fultz hit an in-rhythm pull-up three, and at that point the skies parted, a rainbow appeared, and angels sang. All game long Thursday, Sixers fans were imploring Markelle Fultz to shoot and to trust himself. Take the open shot.

Then this happened — Fultz’s first three as a Sixer.

That earned pretty much a standing ovation from the Philly crowd.

Fultz was 5-of-15 shooting on the night and was just 2-of-9 outside the paint — there is still work to do. A lot of it. But the fact that Fultz kept pulling the trigger and led the Sixers in shot attempts at 15 can be taken as a good sign.

There was one other interesting reclamation project in that game — Zach LaVine, coming off that torn ACL, dropped 30 points in a losing effort.

LeBron James dunks way to 26, but Lakers have long way to go, drop opener in Portland

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The Portland Trail Blazers know who they are and what they want to do — they return mostly the same core players, led by All-Stars Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, still running Terry Stotts offense as they have for years.

The Lakers have LeBron James who scored 26 and grabbed a dozen boards… and a lot of other new faces. Too many of whom are not a threat from three and all of whom are still getting to know each other.

In LeBron’s Lakers’ debut, continuity and shooting won out.

Throughout much of the night, and especially when things tightened up late, Portland knew what it wanted to do and executed — it was Lillard time, he finished the game with a team-high 28 points. In contrast, too often the Lakers looked disorganized, particularly on defense. Their offense felt clumsy in the half court, with LeBron working to get guys involved more than just take over.

The Trail Blazers won the fourth quarter 35-28 and with it the game, 128-119, much to the delight of a raucous Portland crowd.

The Lakers are now 0-1 in the LeBron era. It’s just one game, but it showed that the Lakers have a long way to go to get to be the team they want to be this season — and it also showed the potential of what they can be.

“We had some good, we had some bad, which is to be expected in game one,” LeBron said after the loss. “I liked our fight to get back into the game when we were down double digits, I liked the way we competed at times, I liked the way we shared the ball at times as well.”

These new-look Lakers did what Luke Walton had promised — they ran, they attacked the rim scoring a ridiculous 70 points in the paint, and they moved the ball. The Lakers had 17 fast break points in the first half, this is a team that averaged 17.5 fast break points a game last season (LA finished with 34).

And Los Angeles dunked. LeBron got in on the fun and was throwing it down.

That, alone, does not win games.

The Lakers shot just 7-of-30 from three, missing a lot of quality looks from the corner and going 0-of-7 from there. Maybe in other games those start to fall, but concerns about the lack of shooting with the Lakers go back to how Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka constructed the roster, and that looked like a real issue on opening night.

LeBron also struggled to connect passes to teammates, he finished with six assists but turned the ball over on 18.8 percent of his possessions on the night. In the halfcourt, he let Rajon Rondo run the shot often (he had  13 points and 11 assists and was a +11 in 32 minutes, it was a good night for him).

“We had some turnovers, which I expected, just trying to get a feel for one another,” LeBron said. “We can do a better job.”

Portland, on the other hand, knocked down the kind of shots they struggled to hit against the Pelicans in the playoffs last April — they were 13-of-37 from three (35.1 percent). The surprise came from Nik Stauskas, who was 5-of-8 from three on his way to 24 points on the night.

Los Angles moved well off the ball and when LeBron got the rock at the elbow he found a lot of cutters. However, when Rajon Rondo or Lance Stephenson was initiating the offense, the Blazers laid back and took away passing lanes, daring the Lakers to shoot.

Some of the Laker youth showed promise — Josh Hart had 20 points and was 3-of-5 from three, Brandon Ingram had 16 points and Kyle Kuzma 15. However, they are still adapting to playing with LeBron, they often struggled from three, and like the entire team, they were up and down on the night.

There were flashes when the Lakers were running when you saw how dangerous this Lakers team can be with a roster full of unselfish playmakers — the Lakers ran on 24.2 percent of their possessions and they scored 1.71 points per possession on those.

But they are not yet the team they need to be — and on the road, against a Portland team that knows exactly who it is, that is not enough. Welcome to the Western Conference, LeBron, there are a lot of teams like Portland out there.

Ben Simmons triple-double, Joel Embiid’s 30 leads 76ers past Bulls 127-108

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Markelle Fultz heard 20,000 Philadelphia 76ers fans exhort him to shoot each time he touched the ball, a roaring confidence boost for a No. 1 pick closer to a bust than brilliance.

Fultz had the look he wanted in the second quarter. He dribbled to the foul line without a defender in his path, pulled up and uncorked a jumper. The ball rattled around the rim before it fluttered through the net.

Sixers fans rose to their feet, erupted in cheers and chanted “Fultz! Fultz! Fultz!”

Yes, a simple jumpshot from the top pick of the 2017 draft in the second game of the season was enough to get a rise out of the fans – and a sigh of relief from Fultz.

“It makes me feel better for the whole crowd to feel as good as I want to,” Fultz said.

The curious case of Fultz’s missing jumper continued against the Bulls when one of the more scrutinized players in the NBA managed to steal the spotlight from his more accomplished teammates with routine – yet highlight-reel worthy – baskets.

Until he gets his shot right, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid will continue to lead the Sixers.

Simmons had a triple-double with 13 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists and Embiid had 30 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Philadelphia 76ers past the Chicago Bulls 127-108 on Thursday night.

Fultz scored 12 points on 5 of 15 shooting, the most shots taken by a Sixer.

“He shot it to mean it,” coach Brett Brown said. “He didn’t look afraid of anything. He missed the shots but they looked good.”

Fultz is coming off a miserable rookie season that was shortened because of a right shoulder injury, a broken shot and busted confidence. Even his personal shooting coach said Fultz suffered from the “yips,” an assertion shot down on media day by the second-year guard. Fultz simply blamed his lost season on the injury. Brown tried to give Fultz a confidence boost by putting him in the starting lineup – yet has benched him for the start of the second half.

Fultz was 1 of 6 in 15 minutes in the first half and didn’t play again until late in the third and the Sixers leading by 88-68.

“The challenge is to grow him and help us win the game,” Brown said. “There’s no book that tells you how to do that, so you’re going to have to figure some stuff out. There will be some pain along the way and some positives.”

With or without Fultz, the 76ers had plenty of positives after an opening-night disaster in Boston.

Simmons reached a triple-double with 2:34 left in the third, the 13th of his career and the first Sixer to ever get one in the home opener. Sixers fans chanted “Trust the Process!” when Embiid ended the third with free throws.

Fultz proved a long-range ace again in the fourth – this time with a 3! He drained his first career 3-pointer for a 108-88 lead and the Philly fans that are firmly perched in his corner went wild and again chanted his name.

The Sixers know that if they want to become legitimate Eastern Conference contenders, Fultz will have to become the star they envisioned when they drafted him.

“I’m never afraid,” Fultz said. “I worked hard this summer. Tonight, I didn’t make a lot of them, but I’m going to keep shooting them. If I see an open shot, I’m going to go shoot it.”

He didn’t even mind when Chicago’s defense sagged off him, daring him to take shots. The Bulls, not expected to win much in the East, scored a combined 35 points in the second and third quarters. Zach LaVine led the Bulls with 30 points in their season opener.

“When we started missing shots, we stopped guarding and rebounding,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Ben Simmons racked up his first triple-double of season in three quarters

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The first triple-double of the season went to the Pelicans Elfrid Payton with the “just made it” version of 10, 10, and 10.

Ben Simmons racked up the first of what will be many triple-doubles this season in his second game, Thursday night against the Bulls. He finished the night with 13 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists. Here is the assist that put him over the top, along with a few other highlights.

Philadelphia started the second half on a 19-2 run and controlled the game the rest of the way, going on to win by 19. There was even a Markelle Fultz pull up three that fell.