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May 26, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Best Shot

by Bradford Doolittle


at Miami 103, Chicago 95, OT (Miami leads series 3-1)
Pace: 90.2
Offensive Ratings: Miami 101.5, Chicago 93.4

Game Four was a game classic in the combined effort and determination of its combatants; it was not a classic in aesthetics or execution. To the Bulls and Heat, the latter didn't matter. This time of the year, it's survive and advance. After outlasting Chicago in overtime and thus handing the Bulls their first three-game losing streak, Miami has the Eastern Conference Finals well in hand. One of the takeaways from Tuesday night was unsurprising--the Heat simply has more shot makers, leaving the Bulls a smaller margin for error down the stretch of a close game. The other is one I hadn't anticipated: Tom Thibodeau has been out-coached by Erik Spoelstra. We'll get into that in a bit, as we recount the one play that I just can't get out of my mind.

Miami won despite another lousy shooting night by Dwyane Wade and Joakim Noah's vastly-improved defensive performance on Chris Bosh. The Heat held their own on the boards, getting 33 of 43 defensive rebound chances, which was a win in that it negated Chicago's only offensive advantage. The Heat also enjoyed a 32-17 edge out the foul line. The Bulls' defensive intensity was amazing, but they fouled too often early in quarters to put Miami in the bonus for long stretches of easy points. The foul discrepancy kept Miami in the game through its arid patches.

The Heat also outperformed the Bulls in bench play, another area thought to be heavily in Chicago's advantage. Miami's reserves outscored Chicago's 23-18. More telling, throughout the game the presence of Mike Miller (+36) and Udonis Haslem (+25) meant the Heat was on a roll. Miller, after looking totally incapable of making a perimeter shot for most of the playoffs, got hot late and scored 12 points. The Heat needed every one. Miller and Haslem had nine rebounds each, most on the Heat. And Mario Chalmers scored nine first-half points and helped the Heat overcome an early deficit. Thibodeau, meanwhile, didn't seem to have as much faith in his depth, especially with Omer Asik lost to an ankle injury. Ronnie Brewer played over 20 minutes, but C.J. Watson got just 6:33, Taj Gibson 10:05 and Kyle Korver once again struggled with his shot.

Ah, those shots. The Bulls were improved in the paint, hitting 22-of-40 in the lane and outscoring Miami there 44-24. It could have been better. The Bulls were 2-of-10 on second-chance shots, with Noah continuing to misfire at the rim. He was 3-of-10 on Tuesday and 2-of-5 on putbacks. The Bulls were just 6-of-24 on threes (Korver was 0-of-3 and Derrick Rose was 0-of-9) as the halfcourt offense continued to flounder. Chicago scored 26 fastbreak points and were 12-of-16 shooting in transition. The easy points were the only thing keeping the Bulls in the contest. The Heat didn't shoot much better and was just 1-of-8 on second-chance points, but there were all those free throws. And, down the stretch, LeBron James began to weave his way to the basket, Bosh made a couple of difficult shots, and Wade made a step back fadeaway with Brewer in his face in overtime, a backbreaking shot. Miami just has more shot makers. For much of the game, I looked at the Bulls' misfires on some quality looks and thought of Butler, circa the 2011 NCAA Championship game.

Before the game, I outlined some adjustments I thought Thibodeau could make to get a little more offense. Those suggestions weren't important. I'm not a coach. What was important was this: Thibodeau had to show some flexibility and creativity because the more the Heat saw of the Chicago offense, the more difficult the points were to come by for the Bulls. Thibodeau didn't demonstrate that creativity, instead opting for the same approach he's taken all year. Hey, maybe that's what you have to live with with Thibodeau. He's as stalwart as they come and his consistency helped the Bulls to 62 regular-season wins. Nevertheless, he's been out-adjusted by Spoelstra in this series.

Two of my suggestions came into play. Brewer guarded James for some of the game and looked fine in doing so. What I liked about that notion is that when Miami goes small, that decision allows the Bulls to use Luol Deng at the four. Deng can guard Chris Bosh, he's long enough for that, and the configuration allows the Bulls to space the floor and create more room for Rose to operate. However, Brewer didn't guard James because Thibodeau wanted to go small. He guarded him because Deng was in foul trouble, and Brewer played the three alongside a traditional two-big man lineup except for one late stretch that I can recall. Also, I wanted to see Rose and Watson play alongside each other. Thibodeau tried that early in the fourth, but Watson fell down in transition, freeing up Miller for an uncontested three, and that was the end of that.

One nice adjustment Thibodeau made was to extend the defense full court when Spoelstra opted for a point guardless lineup. It forced one direct turnover and disrupted the Miami offense, though the ball pressure seemed to disappear as the Bulls' defense grew more reactive in the overtime session. Thibodeau also maximized his personnel by playing offense/defense with his substitutions during crucial spots of the game. He did not, however, play Kurt Thomas, who hasn't been in a game for about three weeks. Thomas should have been prepared to play--he has been for the last 17 years, so Tuesday shouldn't have been any different. That two-man look with Thomas popping open after setting a ballscreen for Rose--it's a look we never got.

I wrote that the Bulls needed to run fewer pick-and-rolls because of the aggressive trapping tactics the Heat has used to neutralize Rose. The TNT guys were harping on much the same thing during Tuesday's broadcast. Thibodeau did run fewer pick-and-rolls, but not many. It was still a staple of the offense. Here's the Bulls' pick-and-roll story on the series, based on data from Synergy Sports Technology:

G1   19.2%   0.85
G2   15.4%   1.06
G3   20.4%   0.70
G4   16.2%   0.28

Thibodeau ran pick-and-rolls 16.2 percent of the time Tuesday, just a bit lower than the series average for Chicago. He shouldn't have run any. That 0.28 points per play the Bulls scored on pick-and-roll sets Tuesday is the most stunning stat of the series. Thibodeau has been outwitted by Spoelstra in this area and instead of waving the white flag, Thibodeau has chosen to ram his head repeatedly into the wall. The Bulls scored just .21 points per play when the sets terminated in a possession for the ballhandler--ie., Rose. Rose turned the ball over on five of the 14 PNR Ballhandler sets in the game. There was no change to Chicago's approach after Miami demonstrated in Game Three that it had gotten the hang of defending Rose in the halfcourt. The results on Tuesday demonstrated the folly in Thibodeau's way. Live and learn.

Thibodeau's rigid manner finally sunk the Bulls at the end of regulation. Spoelstra had switched James onto Rose a few minutes earlier. This wasn't a new concept, though the TNT announcers seemed surprised by it. Spoelstra did this during the regular season for stretches as well. Last spring, James guarded Rose for key possessions in the first-round series between the Cavaliers and Bulls. The strategy always seems to work. There are only a handful of people in the world that can keep Derrick Rose in front of them on a basketball court. One of them is LeBron James, who also happens to be six inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. Frankly, Rose seems intimidated by James.

On the Bulls' second-to-last possession, Thibodeau called for a 1-4 set, with Rose isolated against James out top. I'd asked for more of these sets in my Game Three recap, but I didn't want them like this. Too little, too late and at just the wrong time. It didn't work as Rose missed the shot. Brewer gave the Bulls one last shot by drawing a charge from James. This time, Thibodeau called timeout. This was his chance to draw up something Coach of the Yearesque--the surefire out of bounds play he'd kept in his hip pocket for just the right time. Something that would help to offset James' dogging of Rose. What did he come up with? The exact same set. The result? The exact same thing. Once Rose's desperation jumper over James' contesting fingertips fell way short, you definitely had the feeling that the Bulls had no shot in overtime. It wasn't quite that simple--the Bulls committed some egregious turnovers to help Miami's cause and the Heat hit some really tough shots--but Chicago's golden opportunity was lost during that sequence at the end of regulation.

Look, despite the declarations of defeat going around everywhere, the Bulls won't fold. If a team is going to come back from a 3-1 deficit, it's going to be the team with the overall home advantage. If the Bulls win at home on Thursday, that puts the onus on Miami to close out the series in six. The Bulls have come close to stealing one in Miami, so maybe the third time will be the charm, setting up a classic Game Seven at the United Center. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. The Bulls have to win at home first. This may simply be a case of the Bulls rubbing up against their ceiling, just a tick below the star power of the Heat. Chicago may be the second-best team in the NBA, but still lacks the experience and the benefit of one more explosive shooter. And their coach, for all his grooming as an assistant and all his postseason accolades, still has a few lessons to learn.

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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When Top Recruits Go M... (05/26)
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