Thursday nights are always big news in the NBA, but this one for a different reason. While we are being treated to two quality contests, the real big news is the forthcoming trade deadline. We’re expecting Josh Smith to move somewhere, and there’s always those deals that come from out-of-nowhere that make for interesting chatter the next day. However, to distract us from the trade gossip, the NBA has given two brilliant match-ups, the first being between Miami’s rampant offense and Chicago’s disciplined defense.
Miami Heat vs. Chicago Bulls
Fire and Water: LeBron James vs. Tom Thibodeau
It feels like every Miami Heat preview mentions LeBron James’ incredible form, but it’s simply too good to ignore. The Heat are rolling, currently riding an eight game winning streak that began with a February 3rd shellacking of the Toronto Raptors and has since steamrolled through the Clippers, Lakers and Thunder en route to contributing to their stellar 37-14 record which is best in the East.
The catalyst behind the Heat’s recent streak has been LeBron James, a man who is playing at a level reached by little, if any, in NBA history over the past few weeks. LeBron’s potent scoring, coupled with incredible efficiency has made him an absolute terror for all opponents thus far and he shows no signs of slowing down. However, the Bulls defence may prove to be his biggest test in this stretch.
Last outing against the Bulls, James put in 30 points in the 96-89 loss and did so on a very respectable 57% shooting from the field. The Bulls are going to find it difficult to stop the reigning MVP but with the in-form frontcourt of Noah and Boozer, they’re in solid stead to cull his impact on the game. Chicago’s best option for taking on LeBron James would be ‘Kobe Stopper’ Jimmy Butler. The upstart sophomore from Marquette has wowed with his deft two-way game, but his defensive work is what really shines. Butler doesn’t take a play off, and makes his man work for every point they score.
The issue that arises with Butler is the physical mismatch. Butler gives up an inch and thirty pounds on James, but more importantly lacks the athleticism to compete with the explosive forward. The Bulls will most likely try to use Butler and fellow small forward Deng in a series of classic Tom Thibodeau plays that work as a team to force LeBron onto the weak side and into a double team; forcing him to use his elite court vision instead of his scoring touch to get the Heat over the line.
Of course, simply deterring LeBron James on the dribble is not an easy task. That’s where Butler needs to come in and attempt to slow, tire, frustrate and do anything within his power to make James’ journey between the perimeter and the paint a nightmare. Tom Thibodeau has accomplished a lot in his relatively short tenure as a head coach – NBA Coach of the Year, practically reinventing NBA defences – but is still yet to find a way to stop LeBron James. A proud defensive coach, you can bet ‘Thibs’ has been spending a lot of his All-Star break drawing up way to try to stop LeBron from another monster performance.
Icing the Heat: Rebounding
The Miami Heat are a brilliant basketball team that has one huge flaw which may be the sole thing threatening their championship tilt – their dismal rebounding. The Heat rank dead last in rebounding, partially due to the smaller line-ups they like to run, while the Bulls are fifth. The Bulls’ rebounding prowess got them over the line against the Heat last time, and Thibodeau will likely try to use that advantage again.
The Bulls’ rebounding unit begins with Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, who average 20.8 rebounds per contest between each other. Luol Deng gets amongst it from the small forward slot, and Taj Gibson provides steady reinforcement off of the bench.
For Miami, they have to do as they’ve done this season and continue to try to overcome the deficit they’ll give up on the boards. For starters, if LeBron James can continue to not miss, that goes a long way as there aren’t any rebounds to go around if they simply never miss. Bosh and the other Heat bigs need to focus their energy primarily on limiting the offensive rebounds from the springy Noah and savvy Boozer. The Heat should outpace the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls at the offensive end, but will be undone if they allow tip-ins and putbacks all game.
The Bottom Line
The Bulls are performing admirably in the absence of a franchise player. Looking around the league, there are few other teams that could possibly be placed fifth in their conference without their franchise cornerstone. Look at the Sixers’ struggles without Bynum, Orlando post-Howard or imagine the Lakers without Kobe or Knicks without Melo for a season.
All that being said, without Rose the Bulls are a second-tier team in the Eastern Conference and the Heat are the gold standard. The Bulls have matched up well with the Heat in the past and hold a significant advantage on the boards. However, the Heat should be expected to take the win and stretch their dominant winning streak to nine.