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.

Watch all of LeBron James’ 46 points in Game 6

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There is going to be a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals Sunday because of LeBron James.

George Hill had a strong game (20 points), Jeff Green and Larry Nance Jr. had their moments, but it was all about LeBron — 46 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists in 46 brilliant minutes.

Rather than try to describe his game to you — including the dagger threes late — just watch.

And enjoy. There are still some people out there (mostly on Twitter, it seems) who just want to tear LeBron down for some reason. I pity them. Not just because they are wrong, although they are. Rather, it’s because they are depriving themselves of enjoying one of the greatest players ever to lace them up. LeBron can bully people in the paint, hit step back threes, is as gifted a passer as the game has seen, and just plays a smart, high-IQ game we have got to watch grow over the years. If you can’t enjoy that, you don’t love basketball.

LeBron James is a force nature, scores 46, wills Cavaliers to win forcing Game 7

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What more can be said about the brilliance of LeBron James?

We can point to his 46 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists Friday night in a win-or-go-fishing elimination game. We can point to how he lifted the team up when Kevin Love went down after a blow to the head (more on that later). We could talk about how this is his seventh 40+ point game of the playoffs, the last guy to do that since Michael Jordan in 1989 (when Jordan was 25 and had yet to win a title).

Or, we can just show you his back-to-back dagger threes in the fourth quarter over Jayson Tatum.

That is art on a basketball court.

LeBron got a little help Friday night at home, and with that the Cavaliers won Game 6 109-99, forcing a Game 7 back in Boston on Sunday night.

“It feels good just to play for another game, and like I’ve always said ‘Game 7’ is the best two words in sports,” LeBron said. “And for us to be on the road in a hostile environment where we have had no success up to this point, we should relish the opportunity and have fun with it.”

LeBron was nothing short of brilliant (remember 10-12 years ago people were trying to say he was afraid of the big moment, damn that sounds silly now). He is historically brilliant in Game 7s, but he can’t do it alone.

George Hill, the second best shot creator on the team, had 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Jeff Green had 14 off the bench, and Larry Nance Jr. had a timely 10 points and 7 rebounds.

Nance’s play was crucial because Kevin Love went down 5 minutes into the game after banging heads with Jayson Tatum while setting a screen.

Love’s was being checked for a concussion and his status for Game 7 is not known. (If he does have a concussion, it’s unlikely he clears the league protocol in time to play in two days.)

Despite LeBron and all of it, the Celtics had their chances in this one.

Boston got off to a fast start because Jaylen Brown had 15 first-quarter points and the Celtics shot 61 percent as a team, none of which seemed sustainable but it got them out to a 25-20 lead after one. Then the Cavaliers came on in the second with a 20-4 run behind LeBron, and once they had the lead the Cavaliers never let it go.

Boston will look back on not grabbing rebounds — Cleveland grabbed the offensive rebound on 36.6 percent of their missed shots, a very high percentage — and the fact the Celtics missed nine free throws and think things could have been different.

Boston is going home, where they are 10-0 these playoffs and for some reason inexplicable even to Brad Stevens, they play much better. The Celtics have a great defense, smart players, and a real chance.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James. That may be enough.

“We have one more game to be able to compete for a championship, what more can you ask for?” LeBron said.

Kevin Love being evaluated for concussion, out for second half

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It happened just five minutes into the game — Cleveland’s Kevin Love and Boston’s Jayson Tatum banged heads.

Love was in the midpost and part of his job was to set a screen for George Hill, who was racing out to the arc. In doing so, Love and Tatum banged heads and it wasn’t pretty.

Love spent a few minutes on the ground, went straight to the locker room, and has not returned to the game.

Tatum did not leave the game.

There still is no official word on if Love has a concussion. If he does, he will go into the league’s mandated concussion protocol — which means to be cleared he has to be symptom free through a series of physical tests — and it would be a challenge for him to be back for a Game 7, if there is one.

And their likely will be one. After struggling in the rest of the first quarter without Love, the Cavaliers have gotten solid performances out of Hill, Jeff Green, and of course, LeBron James has been brilliant. The Cavaliers have a comfortable 15-point lead late in the third quarter.

NBA Finals schedule drops, Game 1 Thursday, May 31

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We don’t know where the NBA Finals will be played, but we know when.

Next Thursday the eyes of the NBA world could be focused on Oakland or Houston, and the following Wednesday that may shift to Boston or Cleveland. All four of those teams still have a chance to make the NBA Finals.

What we know is the dates for the games. Here is the schedule:

Game 1, Thursday, May 31, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 2, Sunday, June 3, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 3, Wednesday, June 6, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 4, Friday, June 8, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 5, Monday, June 11, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 6, Thursday, June 14, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 7, Sunday, June 17, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Games 5, 6, and 7 are if necessary. All games will be broadcast on ABC.

There were no surprises here. The date of the start of the NBA Finals has been set since before the season started (it always is, to help broadcast partners and international media plan). The game pattern follows the same as last year, when the NBA changed it to make sure there was at least one day off in addition to travel days when the venue switches cities.