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May 2, 2009
Playoff Prospectus
Game Seven

by Kevin Pelton

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Part of the reason why the epic series between the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls, which culminates with tonight's winner-take-all Game Seven, has been so entertaining is the different levels on which the series can be enjoyed. For the casual fan, this series has been highlighted by breathtaking individual plays, intense debates over flagrant fouls and non-stop drama. Digging deeper, the series has offered more strategic decisions to the two sidelines than many coaches face in a whole season, most notably the different lineups Doc Rivers and Vinny Del Negro have employed.

Improbably, Bulls center Brad Miller has taken center stage on both levels. His dazed expression as he stepped to the free-throw line to try to tie Game Five after a hard foul by Rajon Rondo is one of this series' indelible images, as Miller's jubilation after coming through with two critical shots late in regulation of Game Six. At the same time, Miller's presence has had an enormous positive impact for Chicago in this series. In a taut, back-and-forth series in which Boston has a 20-point advantage thanks to the Game Three blowout, the Bulls have outscored the Celtics by a remarkable 62 points with Miller on the floor, including a +26 mark in Game Six alone.

Astute observers might note that Miller has in part benefited from Del Negro's tendency to sub him off the floor for defense late in games. That means Miller gets credit for the points Chicago scores while he's on the bench when Boston has possession. Even accounting for this by breaking down the numbers on a per-possession basis shows that Miller has immensely helped Chicago on both ends of the floor, and particularly on defense.

              ORtg     DRtg     Net

w/Miller     115.0    100.8    +14.2
no Miller     99.2    120.1    -20.9

Diff         +15.8    -19.3    +35.1

While young starters Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah have played well in this series, Miller offers the most balanced production of the Chicago big men. His superior defensive rebounding is one reason the Celtics have been less effective with him on the floor, while on offense Miller's ability to stretch the defense--even hitting five three-pointers in six attempts--has more than overcome his tendency to turn the ball over while trying to force passes from the high post.

Miller is averaging just 26.3 minutes per game in this series, so barring the foul trouble that limited his court time in Game Six, Del Negro should have the opportunity to ramp up his playing time in Game Seven. Who else should be out there with him? The three-guard lineup with Ben Gordon, Kirk Hinrich and Derrick Rose has been highly effective for the Bulls in this series, outscoring the Celtics by 33 points while on the floor. Their super-small lineup with the three guards plus John Salmons at power forward is +13, and these four players plus Miller have made up one of Chicago's best lineups, one that was on the floor for the 10-2 run at the end of regulation in Game Six.

The numbers are less clear in the case of Tony Allen. Rivers' decision to play the defensive specialist late in regulation in Game Six to match up with the Bulls' smallball unit caused Bill Simmons to yell at his dog, and Allen's plus-minus is a whopping -42 in the series. Then again, Allen suffers from the opposite problem of Miller's--he frequently checks in for defensive purposes late in games. Looking strictly at the lineups where the Celtics have Allen on the floor and the Bulls have three guards and Salmons, Chicago has only a slight advantage.

Plus-minus data also reinforces the deep gulf between Boston's starting lineup and the team's reserves. Brian Scalabrine, at -7 for the series, is the only bench player within shouting distance of a neutral plus-minus. Meanwhile, the worst of the Celtics' starters is Kendrick Perkins, and the team has outscored Chicago by 39 points with Perkins on the floor.

As you sit back and watch tonight's game, be sure to pay close attention to who's on the floor, particularly Miller. The lineup decisions made by the two coaches will play a key role in determining whether Boston continues the defense of its championship or the Bulls will be able to complete the upset.

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

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