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Bulls vs. Heat

Eastern Conference Finals

5/15/11

The Chicago Bulls (70-23) might have been the best team in the NBA during the regular season, which earned them to the top seed in the Eastern Conference and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. But the second-seeded Miami Heat (66-26) possess the star power featuring their infamous Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, making them the -200 favorites heading into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday at the United Center in Chicago.

The Bulls (-1.5 in Game 1) are +170 underdogs for the series and do not mind that label considering they were not the ones who were supposed to be here when the regular season started. The biggest offseason of free-agent activity in league history saw them strike out on James, Bosh and Wade, who grew up in the Windy City before starring at Marquette and leading the Golden Eagles to the Final Four in 2003. Instead, they netted power forward Carlos Boozer, backup point guard C.J. Watson and a three-headed shooting guard combination in Keith Bogans, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver.

Fortunately, the Bulls already had the centerpiece of their team in starting point guard Derrick Rose to go along with center Joakim Noah and promising forwards Luol Deng and Taj Gibson. Nobody could have predicted Rose’s sudden rise from Rookie of the Year to MVP status within three years, although he wondered “why not me?” when people began discussing candidates for the NBA’s most coveted individual award. The addition of Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau from the Boston Celtics became the glue that brought this team together and formed a title contender.

Thibodeau installed his highly-acclaimed defense that kept the Los Angeles Lakers from earning another three-peat by beating them three years ago and also stopped James from returning to the NBA Finals during his tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers. One could argue he is partially blame for bringing the Big Three together since he helped knock out both James and Wade from the postseason last year when he was the Celtics. Now he will try to figure out a way to limit at least one of them and turn the Heat back into a team that has looked lost at times.

Unlike Chicago, expectations in Miami were extremely high following “The Decision” back in July when James announced he was taking his talents to South Beach on national television. The Big Three proceeded to celebrate like a championship was already in the bank without truly realizing the amount of pressure that each of them would face throughout the season as the team everybody loved to hate.

James and Wade have become the most dangerous duo since the Bulls had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen on their six championship teams in the 1990s. Bosh remains the Heat’s X-factor, as his inconsistent play and matchup with Boozer could ultimately decide who wins this series.

Bosh twice took 18 shots against Chicago in three meetings during the regular season, including a pitiful 1-for-18 performance in a 93-89 loss at the United Center on February 24. James and Wade took 21 and 24 shots, respectively, in that game while none of their other teammates took more than six. The Bulls obviously would not mind a duplication of that scenario but definitely will not be able to count on that happening again.

Instead, Chicago’s focus will be on holding at least one of the Big Three in check, preferably Wade or James because they feed off each other the most. Keep in mind that the Bulls outrebounded Miami in winning all three regular-season meetings and also had more points in the paint in each of the games. The Heat’s two biggest weaknesses are point guard and interior depth, which both happen to be strengths for Chicago.

Miami could also suffer a bit of a letdown after knocking out Boston 4-1 in the conference semifinals, although that seems unlikely considering what is still at stake. The bigger question is, will the Bulls play like they did in Games 2, 3, 5 and 6 against the Atlanta Hawks in the previous round when they won each of them by 10 points or more and did not allow more than 83 points? Or will they lack focus and be overwhelmed by the moment like they were in Games 1 and 4 against the Hawks when they struggled defensively by giving up 100 points or more each time?

Chicago will not be able to make any mistakes in the Eastern Conference Finals because giving away as much as a game could be the difference in determining who advances. The Bulls also need to take advantage of their edge at home, where they are 41-6 straight-up and 27-18-2 against the spread. The Heat can rely on their talent to some degree, but they must be put into a position where they start doubting themselves and their chemistry together. If not, they will roll into the NBA Finals and likely be crowned champions for the second time in franchise history.

Series Pick: Chicago Bulls (+170 at Bookmaker) in 7

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