NBA Playoffs Heat vs. Bulls Game 3: Advantage, home-court and otherwise

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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.

Player Advantage

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.

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.

Circumstantial

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.

Home-Court

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.

Intangible

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.

The time Shaq peed in Suns teammate Lou Amundson’s shoes – and worse!

Suns players Lou Amundson and Shaquille O'Neal (Shaq)
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Gilbert Arenas has earned a reputation as the NBA player who relieved himself in a teammate’s shoe (Wizards forward Andray Blatche’s).

But Arenas’ tactic wasn’t unique.

Shaquille O’Neal got into a prank war with Suns teammate Lou Amundson during the 2008-09 season. It got intense as Phoenix, coached by Alvin Gentry, reached the final game of its season.

ESPN’s Amin Elhassan on “The Dan Le Batard Show With Stugotz” local hour, hosted by Mike Ryan:

Shaq is the big prankster, the big joker. But if you do something against him, there’s no tit for tat. There’s tit for nuclear war.

He goes to Lou’s locker, grabs his sneakers, pees in them.

That’s the start, right? He then goes and let’s just say “messes with” some of Lou’s haircare devices, like his brush and his comb and stuff. Messes with them. Let me put it this way: Messes with them in a way that – I was comfortable telling you he peed in the shoes. I’m not comfortable telling you what he did to the hair stuff. And then this part, I will tell you: He tampers with Lou’s mouth guard.

He tampers with it.

He tampers with it.

Lou shows up at like 8 or whenever he usually shows up. And he’s skittish and nervous. And Suns.com is there like, “What do you think Shaq is going to do?” “I don’t know. I think he’s going to do something, though.”

So, I’ll never forget this. He’s sitting at the locker, and he opens – he starts to reach for the sneakers and then looks at them and says, “Nah, something doesn’t feel right.” Opens the door up, pulls out a fresh pair of sneakers for the last game of the year, right? Again, this is irregular behavior. Usually, you have a couple of sneakers. You break them in for the year, and you switch between two or three or three or four, whatever. So to break out a whole brand new pair … was weird.

Most of the time when you’re an NBA player, you don’t put on the mouth guard immediately. You have it in a case, and you give the case to the trainer. Then, you go out to the bench. Then, when you’re about to come into the game, that’s when you grab your mouthpiece.

There’s no funnier image than Alvin drawing up a play, kneeling down, coaches standing around him. Lou is sitting there, because now he’s in the game. The guys who are in the game are usually seated. Sitting there just staring at the clipboard, like, “OK, coach. I got you.” And everyone else is just staring at Lou. No one’s paying attention.

Puts the mouth guard in. One, two [sounds of disgust], takes the mouth guard out and flings it with tremendous accuracy at the bench. Everyone starts dying. I remember going back and watching the broadcast, “Oh, Suns bench seems to be getting a lot of fun.” They had no idea what’s happening.

What did Shaq do to Amundson’s mouth guard? My imagination is running WILD.

Elhassan also explains why Grant Hill took 25 shots – his most in four years – in that game. Hill needed to score 26 points to average 12 points per game for the season, which would trigger a large bonus in his shoe contract. Hill’s gunning got him 27 points.

It’s a good podcast with other fun anecdotes and worth a listen.

Magic: Mo Bamba out for playoffs, undergoing post-coronavirus evaluation

Magic center Mo Bamba
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Mo Bamba contracted coronavirus, fell out of shape, recovered, joined the Magic in the bubble then struggled to contribute on the court.

Now, he’s departing the bubble for good.

Magic:

The Magic are huge underdogs in their first-round series against the Bucks. This doesn’t really change the equation. Bamba had already fallen from the rotation, which is now comprised of Nikola Vucevic and Khem Birch at center.

But it raises thorny long-term questions.

Bamba was the No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Though he has underwhelmed so far, the Magic were still hoping he’d grow into a quality NBA player. Bamba at least improved from his rookie season.

His progress has obviously been halted. For how long? Will he face lasting effects?

Everyone is trying to get to the bottom of these difficult questions.

Reported Bulls coaching candidates: Kenny Atkinson, Stephen Silas, Darvin Ham, more

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The Bulls fired Jim Boylen. 76ers assistant Ime Udoka was reportedly frontrunner for the job, but Chicago will conduct a full search.

Who else is in the mix?

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

The broad search is expected to include former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas, Bucks assistant Darvin Ham and 76ers assistant Ime Udoka, among others, sources said.

Atkinson is the only former head coach on that list. Like Tyronn Lue for win-now teams, Atkinson is the top available coach for rebuilding teams. (If fired by the 76ers, Brett Brown could supplant Atkinson.) Atkinson had a strong record of player development before Brooklyn shifted priorities.

The Bulls – with Zach LaVine, Coby White, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and a high first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft – could use someone like him.

But Atkinson could have options, and Chicago might not be the most desirable opening.

Udoka, Silas, Ham and Unseld are all rising assistants who have earned head-coaching consideration. Interviews should help determine whether they’re ready for that step.

PBT NBA All-Bubble Awards

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard and Rockets star James Harden
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The NBA will announce seeding-game awards tomorrow.

But the play-in is already set. Other playoff matchups are already set. The final seeding games today are just glorified scrimmages.

So, why wait to name the top performers in the bubble?

Here are our picks using the same format as the league – a Most Valuable Player, two five-player teams (no positions) and a coach:

Bubble MVP

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

Kurt Helin: It isn’t simply that Damian Lillard led the bubble in scoring at 37.6 points per game. It wasn’t how he got those points, with ridiculously deep threes and driving layups. It was when he did it that makes him bubble MVP: When the Trail Blazers had a rough outing (as did Lillard) and looked like they might fade from postseason contention, he came back next game and dropped 61. Then 51 the game after that. Then 42 in the final bubble game with the playoffs on the line. Lillard was the ultimate leader and willed his team to the play-in series, and that’s what makes him MVP of the seeding games.
Dan Feldman: James Harden was more consistently good and even sometimes great. But nobody hit higher levels than Lillard, who stepped up in the biggest moments to lead Portland into the play-in with the eighth-place advantage. Lillard set an emotional tone for a team constantly vulnerable of falling from the playoff race, and he delivered on the court with brilliant offense. He wasn’t perfect, but he went to great lengths to ensure the Trail Blazers met their goal. That’s the bubble MVP.

All-Bubble teams

First team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)
Devin Booker (Suns) James Harden (Rockets)
T.J. Warren (Pacers) Devin Booker (Suns)
Luka Doncic (Mavericks) T.J. Warren (Pacers)
James Harden (Rockets) Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

Second team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Jayson Tatum (Celtics) Luka Doncic (Mavericks)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks) Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)
Kawhi Leonard (Clippers) Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)
DeMar DeRozan (Spurs) Paul George (Clippers)
Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks) Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks)

Kurt Helin: It was difficult leaving Antetokounmpo off the first team, he played brilliantly but his team was in cruise control (plus he took himself out of the last game by headbutting Moe Wagner). A few players such as Fred VanVleet and Michael Porter Jr. also almost made the cut.

Dan Feldman: Lillard, Harden, Booker and Warren were first-team locks. Antetokounmpo was absolutely dominant when he wanted to be, which was limited with the Bucks locking up the No. 1 seed early. Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, Chris Paul, Gary Trent Jr. and Fred VanVleet were among the contenders for the final second-team spots.

Coach of the Bubble

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Monty William (Suns) Monty William (Suns)

Kurt Helin: Every young team talked about it heading into the restart (and developing teams not invited to the restart begged for the same opportunity): Using the bubble games as a chance for a young core to grow and take a step forward. Except teams like Sacramento and New Orleans didn’t do that. Phoenix, behind Monty Williams did — they became the story of the bubble at 8-0. Devin Booker exploded and got himself in MVP talk, Deandre Ayton played brilliantly, and the Suns came from six-games back of Memphis to almost make the playoffs. Williams set the Suns up to be a playoff team in the West next season.

Dan Feldman: Phoenix went 8-0! That alone is pretty darned impressive, and the context reflects even more favorably on Williams. The Suns entered the bubble with the lowest playoff odds among the continuing 22 teams. Needing to make up 2.5 games and – more significantly – jump four (!) teams, Phoenix could have easily arrived unmotivated and ripe for distraction. Instead, Williams had the Suns playing fearlessly, cohesively and joyously. Williams even leaned heavily on his young players rather than his veterans, taking excellent advantage of a player-development opportunity and positioning Phoenix to ascend next season.