In the second half of game one against Chicago -- a 103-82 beatdown by the Bulls -- the Heat reverted to their mid-season play: They looked disjointed on offense, tepid on the glass and completely out of sorts in its normally stout half-court defense.
For all the talk about how poor the Bulls looked earlier in the playoffs, they all of a sudden looked hungrier, more prepared and much more confident.
Great teams find ways to win and great coaches make adjustments to allow it.
Remember 2008 when the Celtics needed seven games to beat the Hawks in the first round? That entire postseason was a struggle, yet Boston found a way. Chicago, for better or worse, could very well be going down that same path.
The chain reaction of poor defense and lazy rotations that plagued them through the first five games of the Atlanta series was both puzzling and strange. After all, Chicago's blueprint and foundation for success all season was great team defense. So, with the defense faltering, Tom Thibodeau made changes.
Late in the third quarter of game four with the Bulls up one but struggling, he took Carlos Boozer, who simply cannot defend elite bigs, out and inserted the defensive minded Taj Gibson and Omer Asik, as well as adding Ronnie Brewer to the mix on the perimeter.
With that move, Thibodeau may have found a solution for Miami’s hyper-efficient offense, especially with Chris Bosh playing more like CB4 and not “like-a-Bosh.”
Thanks to the Bulls’ stellar defense, that one-point lead soon expanded into a 12-point advantage.
The same philosophy was equally effective in game one against Miami.
Both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are superior playmakers, but by inserting Brewer, Gibson and Asik, the driving lanes were closed. Both bigs did a stellar job of containing drives and keeping them out of the paint. I mentioned before the series, Miami must win the free throw battle to beat Chicago. On Saturday though, they attempted just 15 free throws to go along with a mere eight 3-pointers for a combined total of 23 attempts, a season low and half their normal average of 46 combined per game.
As a result, the kickout options to James Jones that were available in the previous two series were no longer there. Making ancillary parts like Jones and Mario Chalmers immaterial could be a key factor moving forward. Despite playing 24 minutes in game one, Jones only attempted one 3-pointer.
What the Heat did so well against Boston was help free James and Wade within the flow of the offense so that when they caught the ball, they would then be in prime position to score. Gibson is a terrific ball screen hedger though and uses his length extremely well to bother James on switches. And Asik is a legitimate shot blocker who bothered both stars much more than any of the Boston bigs could.
In addition, what made Miami successful against the Celtics was their ability to pound the glass, thanks in large part to Bosh. But in game one of this series, the Heat were outworked on seemingly every rebound.
Chicago won the second chance points battle 31-8. Whenever the Heat closed the margin to six or seven points, the Bulls broke their back with timely put backs, thanks to their 19 offensive rebounds. Chicago is 4-0 in the season series now and have out-rebounded Miami in all four games.
As I stated last week, perhaps the most impressive element to Miami’s dismantling of the Celtics was their late game execution. Erik Spoelstra has been heavily criticized all year for his uninventive and predictable sets to close games. But, in the fourth quarter of the Boston series –- particularly late in the shot clock in the final three minutes –- the Heat excelled, and not just offensively either.
What has been lost in the Big 3 talk all year is that Wade and James are willing to play physical defense. This was never more true than down the stretch of games against Boston. Miami denied the ball from 20 feet, was super quick on rotations and pressured ball handlers and in-bounders to create crowded vision lines.
For whatever reason though, they did not do this in game one against a Chicago team that has struggled to score in the halfcourt all year. Such an aggressive approach needs to be employed.
MVP Derrick Rose is always going to get his -- he’s just too good. But the fact that Joakim Noah and Luol Deng matched Miami’s Big 3 in points (63), is simply not acceptable for the Heat.
LeBron and Wade are the first two teammates since 2003 to each average 26 points in the playoffs, so keeping them under wraps is as difficult as it gets. The other two to accomplish such a feat were Kobe Bryant and Shaq, who won their final championship together that season.
While the Heat’s transition attack was slowed in game one, it’s only a matter of time before they get it going. Still, playoff success is predicated on half-court execution, and Miami must improve in that department. Deng did a tremendous job on James. The solution is simple.
A series of double screens, curl cuts and other small maneuvers will help him in game two and the rest of the way.
It’s not rocket science. It's simple basketball. Chicago’s going to continue throwing the kitchen sink at James and Wade, meaning Bosh could go off again. But Bosh going for 30 isn’t a problem so long as the other two stay under 20.
Adjustments will be made, so the question becomes: will they work?
I believe so. In the 85 regular season and playoff games the two played together this year, only once previous were they held under a combined 33 points. Anomalies do happen, and I still expect the Heat to win this series.