Focus will be on D as league's top slashers meet in Eastern finals
The Eastern Conference finals creates a matchup of recent MVPs -- Derrick Rose vs. LeBron James -- that nobody would have predicted a year ago. They embody this rejuvenated era of open-court dunking, slashing drives and an insatiable talent for creating any kind of shot.
But I wonder if there are going to be many of those highlight plays in this series. I think we're going to see a lot more defense than offense, and if the Bulls have their way, there will be very few games in the 100s. The dearth of scoring may resemble some of the hard-line defensive series of the previous decade, though the style of that defense will be much more entertaining than the muscular lockdown approach of, say, the old Knicks-Heat rivalry.
The most impressive aspect of James, Rose, Dwyane Wade and the other young stars of the East has been their willingness to excel in the least attractive areas of the game. Both teams are still playing because their explosive athleticism has been applied to the defensive end of the floor.
Rose became the NBA's best player while leading the Bulls with averages of 25 points and 7.7 assists; even James endorsed him as league MVP. But Rose's most important contribution began in training camp, where he aligned himself to new coach Tom Thibodeau's defense-first approach. Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Keith Bogans and the other Bulls run the same load-up defense that Thibodeau developed for the Celtics.
The Celtics weren't healthy or energetic enough to defend in the previous round. Miami succeeded in shooting 45.1 percent across the five games, scoring the final 16 points of Game 5 to finish them off. Dwyane Wade shot 52.6 percent for his 30.2 points per game in that series, while LeBron James averaged 28 points while shooting 47.2 percent.
It's a decent bet that the younger, deeper and healthier Bulls will perform better defensively. Bogans and Ronnie Brewer can focus on Wade, while the underrated Deng will have the assistance of Noah and others against LeBron. This series is going to be all about stopping -- rather than outscoring -- the opponent.
The same concerns exist for Miami, which will rely heavily on backup point guard Mario Chalmers to defend Rose. No single defender can keep Rose out of the paint, but Wade will be able to help while drifting off Bogans, Brewer or -- in a riskier move -- Kyle Korver. James and Joel Anthony will continue to be hyperactive defensively.
The swing matchup may be at power forward, where Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer -- viewed along with Amar'e Stoudemire as the top free agents at that position last summer -- will each be trying to improve on their inconsistent postseason showings thus far. Miami may be willing to absorb prolific scoring from Rose: If he is putting up a lot of attempts, that will mean he isn't setting up teammates who need him to create their shots.
In the old days of defensive showdowns, the style of play was unwatchable. But the rule changes of the last decade have diminished isolation play and replaced it with ball movement, and that ball movement, in turn, has created athletic play on defense. Not only will you see Rose slashing inside for layups or kick-outs, but you'll also see Wade dashing crosscourt to contest a three by Bogans or Korver. The defense itself will be entertaining.
Let's say the defenses are equally effective. In that case, this series is going to come down to the final minutes, and in that setting the advantage goes to Miami. Yes, Chicago won all three games during the regular season, but those losses set the Heat on their way. Since the five-game losing streak that included its 87-86 loss to Chicago in early March, Miami has gone 23-5 overall -- with a 10-2 record against teams that would reach the final eight of these playoffs.
Now that the Heat stars have learned to play together, they're ready to cash in on this opportunity to reach the NBA Finals. James has been there before, Wade has already won a championship, and both have been obsessed all season with returning there. The Bulls are here for the first time, and can they learn enough on the fly to overcome Miami's experience? NBA history says they won't. Miami will win in six games.
The answer, probably, is yes. Miami's three stars haven't peaked as a group or individually (apart from Wade, who is 29), which makes the Heat even tougher rivals to overcome next season. At the same time, Miami or the young-and-improving Bulls are one injury away from creating hope for other teams -- much as the injury to Rajon Rondo created opportunities for the Heat to exploit this past week.
The Celtics are committed through next season to Kevin Garnett ($21.2 million at age 35), Ray Allen (who is expected to exercise his $10 million option at age 36) and Paul Pierce (who will be 34 next season at a salary of $15.3 million, plus an additional fully guaranteed year worth $16.8 million in 2012-13). The return of coach Doc Rivers, who just agreed to a five-year extension, enables Boston to invest in this group for another season while also adding younger legs to begin the transition for a rebuild around the 25-year-old Rondo.
The midseason arrival of Jeff Green signaled that long-term approach. There will continue to be back-and-forth arguments about the controversial move by Celtics president Danny Ainge to trade Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City for Green and backup center Nenad Krstic, especially since that exchange was based in part on the false hope that Shaquille O'Neal would be available.
Would the Celtics have beaten Miami without making that deal? I doubt it. They lacked scoring, which Perkins would not have been able to create; and without Green, they would have lacked backup minutes at small forward to apply against LeBron.
The killers for Boston were the losses of Tony Allen, who signed with Memphis as a free agent last summer, and Marquis Daniels, who suffered a season-ending neck injury in January. Their absences left Boston with no backups on the wing to help Allen and Pierce against Wade and James. Those holes, in turn, contributed to the rationale of dealing Perkins for Green. Ainge was trying to shift assets to fill a variety of needs, but more needs were created as Shaq and then Rondo were injured. As the series progressed, it became inevitable that the Celtics would go under against a younger, more athletic contender.
Now the goal is to find players to not only complement the three older stars next season but also to play roles in the future, either as teammates of Rondo or as movable assets. Green is a restricted free agent, and at 6-foot-9 he could be a sixth man along the lines of Lamar Odom -- not quite as dynamic, but nonetheless able to contribute on the perimeter and in the paint. When Rivers discussed Green's play during the postseason, it was from the perspective of an investment being made in him, as opposed to serving as a ready-made contributor. The Celtics expect him to learn from his postseason experiences and to be consistently aggressive next season.
Center Jermaine O'Neal will be back (due $6.2 million), and rookie Avery Bradley will be expected to contribute off the bench as a promising backcourt defender and shooter. Any long-term moves the Celtics make will be done with the goal of hastening their rebuild in 2012. It figures they won't be going all-in to win the championship next season if that hurts their opportunities to make a big move the following summer. They'd already embarked on that long-term approach when they dealt Perkins.
Jason Kidd, this postseason couldn't be shaping up better for you. You're getting the rest you need, and it's not as if you'll lose your edge. On the contrary, you've been able to have a minicamp week together in which all of your experienced players -- Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Tyson Chandler and so on -- have been able to recognize the opportunity and focus on the goal. I like your chances better than ever.
LeBron James, there has been a lot of attention paid to your team's celebration after eliminating the Celtics. But anyone who has paid attention this season will realize that the Heat aren't likely to relax now, because you guys would only invite more criticism that you're a bunch of pretenders.
You've talked about how you like playing on the road. In this case, you get the best of both worlds -- you can go into a hostile environment as the underdog, even though you've been playing better than the Bulls this postseason. They have one star and you have two, and as much grief as Bosh has been hearing, he has been more productive this postseason than Boozer. I don't know how you're going to stop Rose, but he can't beat you by himself.
Russell Westbrook, the truth is that you shouldn't be shooting the ball more often than Kevin Durant. But a larger truth is that you're reverting to your strengths as a scorer under the pressure of the playoffs. It's going to be interesting to see the conclusions you reach when this postseason run is over, and how your game grows during the summer. Will your playmaking skills improve next season? You're always going to be a point guard who creates by attacking, and as your vision continues to improve and you're able to make plays for Durant and others, your ability to score will improve, too.
• Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen: Six championships
• Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Five championships
• Larry Bird and Kevin McHale: Three championships
• Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant: Three championships
• Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili (or Tony Parker, depending on your tastes): Three championships
• Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol: Two championships
• Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars: Two championships