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.

Just a reminder: Spurs hope to repair relationship with Kawhi Leonard, offer-him $219 million

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It’s everyone’s favorite parlor game around the NBA: Where will Kawhi Leonard play next season? Philadelphia? Los Angeles? Somewhere else? Fans of 29 teams are posting their trade scenarios online, while GMs of 29 teams privately have tried to come up with offers that could tempt San Antonio.

The most likely answer: San Antonio.

While the relationship between Leonard and the Spurs is frayed — and with the people close to Leonard and in his ear seemingly trying to push him out the door — the Spurs would rather keep one of the five best players in the NBA (when healthy) in-house. From Tom Osbourne of the San Antonio Express-News.

Still, the Spurs hope to meet with Leonard and his representatives soon in a bid to mend fences and pave the way for Leonard to come to terms on a five-year $219 million supermax contract that he will be eligible to receive starting July 1. If attempts to patch up the relationship fail, the Spurs will be forced to explore trading a player coach Gregg Popovich once labeled “the future face of the franchise.”

The timing of that meeting has been slowed in part because of the death of Popovich’s wife and everyone involved understandably giving him all the space wants. It will happen.

Can the relationship be salvaged? Maybe, $219 million can mend a lot of fences. There are things the Spurs can and would be willing to do to promote Leonard more (although that all starts with him getting out of his comfort zone and building his brand, starting with speaking more in public). Also, Gregg Popovich was able to sooth LaMarcus Aldridge‘s ego when the big man demanded a trade, and not only did the player stay he had an All-NBA level season. Popovich and Leonard still have a strong relationship.

Is that enough? Time will tell, but people around the league think at best it’s a coin flip. Things are not good right now. However, the Spurs will get the first crack at fixing this before they are forced to consider a trade.

Julius Randle’s camp not convinced he’s a Laker priority

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Last November, Julius Randle walked into Staples Center wearing a sweatshirt that said: “pay me.”

Yet he and the Lakers could not come to terms on a rookie contract extension — the Lakers could have had him starting at $12.4 million a year, but wanted to keep their cap space and options open. Now, it’s going to cost a lot more to keep the restricted free agent who averaged 16.1 points per game on 55.8 percent shooting with eight rebounds a game. There are rumors that the previous contract negotiations left a bad taste in Randle’s mouth and he wants out.

Lakers’ fans want Randle back. The Lakers still have rights to match any offer and the front office has said Randle is a priority. Randle’s camp is not so sure about that last part, they haven’t seen the evidence, reports Tania Ganguli at The Los Angeles Times.

Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka told The Times on Friday that the Lakers’ front office is constantly in touch with Julius Randle’s representatives, and there has been “a mutual exchange of interest and hoping that we can work something out for both sides.”

Randle’s camp is unsure of how mutual the interest has been.

“We still have no indication of where Julius stands among the Lakers’ priorities, or if he is a priority at all,” Randle’s agent Aaron Mintz said Saturday in response to Pelinka’s comments. “We are looking forward to the marketplace in July, when we will get a clear picture of Julius’ future.”

That is negotiation posturing by Mintz, no doubt. He might as well have said, “show me the money.”

Don’t expect other teams to wait around on Randle offers while the Lakers figure out their free agent possibilities — Paul George, LeBron James (probably not him) — come July 1. Other teams are interested (Dallas among them) and are going to try to move quickly to force the Lakers’ hand.

Once those other offers are on the table, we’ll see where the Lakers’ priorities really are.

Rumor: Dallas to target big men — Cousins, Jordan, Randle — in free agency

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The Dallas Mavericks have been hunting for a center ever since they thought they had DeAndre Jordan, right before the Clippers locked him in a house and forced him to change his mind (that’s not really how it went down, but it makes a better story than the truth). It’s why Dallas has been linked to Mohamed Bamba in the draft — a big, defensive-minded, rim runner who could develop into a great pick-and-roll partner with Dennis Smith Jr.

However, the Mavericks may not want to wait for Bamba — or any other young big — to develop.

Expect the Mavericks to go after one of the name big men on the market in free agency this summer, reports Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer from the NBA Combine in Chicago.

Ever since word spread in league circles in March that Dirk Nowitzki would return to the Mavericks for his 21st season, there have also been rumblings that the Dallas front office will look to make additions this summer that can put the team back on a winning track. The Mavericks can create space to sign a max free agent, and multiple league sources expect them to pursue a trio of big men: DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins, and restricted free agent Julius Randle.

Jordan has not yet officially opted out of the $24.1 million he is owed next season by the Los Angeles Clippers (although most observers expect him to). It is possible Dallas and other teams are not going to offer that much per season for Jordan, but if he can get three years starting at closer to $20 million per that’s a lot more guaranteed money. Also, does he want out of Los Angeles now that Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are gone and will he take a little less per year to get to a new team?

We know Dallas likes him and Jordan has a relationship with Mark Cuban and Rick Carlisle from the last go around.

How much money and how many years would Dallas be willing to risk on Cousins coming off a torn Achilles? More than the Pelicans (who don’t have the money to replace Cousins with anywhere near that level player if he bolts)?

Randle showed a lot of promise as a bully inside who can run some pick-and-roll with Smith, but do the Mavericks want to try to outbid the Lakers (which leads to the question of what other free agents Los Angeles might get and how much they are willing to pay to keep Randle)?

We know this, Mark Cuban does not sit quietly on the sidelines of free agency. Expect the Mavericks to be aggressive players this summer.

NBA playoffs mired in worst pre-Finals competitive-game drought ever

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Exciting games. Clutch plays. Close finishes.

Remember those?

The NBA playoffs have hit a lull. It has been 11 days since the last game decided by fewer than 10 points.

Longer competitive-game droughts have occurred – though not many, and never before the NBA Finals. The most common route for going so long without a competitive game is decisive victories to end the conference finals, a lengthy break before the Finals then decisive victories to start the Finals.

But we’re not to the Finals yet.

In this case, every second-round series ended in five or fewer games – culminating with the Celtics’ 114-112 win over the 76ers on May 9, the last single-digit game. Three league-wide off days followed. The Celtics routed the Cavaliers twice in Boston, and the Warriors and Rockets traded lopsided wins in Houston. Two more league-wide off days, Cleveland winning by 30 Saturday, Golden State winning by 41 last night, and we’re at 11 straight days without a competitive game.

Here are the longest-ever streaks of days between single-digit playoff games before the conference finals ended:

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Both conference finals are as close as possible, 2-1 (favoring the Warriors and Celtics). But the individual games just haven’t matched the tightness.

Why is this happening?

The peculiar overlapping three off days for each conference finals certainly factored.

Maybe the Warriors and Cavaliers – who’ve met in the last three NBA Finals – are that much better than the rest of their conferences when locked in. Maybe the Warriors and Cavaliers know that, leaving them prone to bad losses the teams know they can rally from. Maybe the Celtics are just that good at home and that bad on the road. Maybe it’s just a random occurrence.

No matter the reason, the result is certain: We’ve gone a long time without seeing a competitive game.

Hopefully, Cleveland and Boston change that tonight.