Opening Tip: Bulls or Heat?

April, 6, 2012
4/06/12
10:16
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Getty ImagesIf Melo's Knicks make the playoffs, they'll run into LeBron or Rose in the first round.
Every weekday morning throughout the season, ESPNNewYork.com will tackle a burning question about the Knicks in our "Opening Tip" segment.

Today's Burning Question: With the Knicks likely to finish as the seventh or eighth seed -- assuming they make the playoffs -- which opponent would they have a better chance against in the first round: the Chicago Bulls or Miami Heat?

Ian Begley thinks it's the Bulls. Jared Zwerling says the Heat. Here are their arguments:

BEGLEY

If the Knicks make the playoffs and wind up playing either Chicago or Miami, they are in big trouble. Barring a monumental injury on either roster, the Knicks would have very little chance of getting out of the first round.

Both Miami and Chicago have had fantastic seasons. They are at the top of the Eastern Conference, nearly identical in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

But where they differ is pace. Chicago is tied for 25th in possessions per game. Miami is middle of the pack. The Bulls use nearly five fewer possessions per game than the Knicks, and I think this is an important distinction, one that makes Chicago a better matchup for New York than Miami.

Mike Woodson's Knicks have shown they can excel in the half court, slowing the offense down to get the ball to Carmelo Anthony in isolation or find open shooters. So based on what we've seen under Woodson, they should be able to adapt to any pace the Bulls want to establish.

Who knows how healthy Derrick Rose is? He's missed 12 games because of a nagging groin injury. And that can linger even after a player returns to the floor. If Rose returns, he would be a tough cover, but in Iman Shumpert the Knicks have one of the top perimeter defenders in the league.

The Knicks will rely heavily on Anthony to generate offense with Jeremy Lin and Amare Stoudemire likely out. Luol Deng is a fine defender, but if I'm a Knicks fan, I have to think Anthony going up against Deng is a better matchup than Anthony versus Miami's LeBron James (assuming the opposing coach uses his small forward to guard Anthony).

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Which potential first-round opponent is a better matchup for the Knicks?

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ZWERLING

Consistency, to me, is what the argument between the Bulls and Heat comes down to, and the Bulls have it more, especially on defense. That's why they're the scarier opponent.

Here's a key stat: 15-7. That's the Bulls' record this season without their floor general and reigning MVP Derrick Rose on the court (because of injuries). They shut down opponents just the same: around 90 points allowed per game, a mark that ranks them second in the league (after the Philadelphia 76ers). Then, with D-Rose in the lineup, they average about nine more points.

When the Bulls beat the Celtics on Thursday night, 93-86, their first three were C.J. Watson, Richard Hamilton and Luol Deng. On the flip side, when the Heat were cooled down by the Celtics last week, 91-72, their first three were Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. That speaks volumes to that consistency. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has such a great system in place, and it's never messed with. In comparison, the Heat are more susceptible to losing their identity in a game and playing to the opponent's defense.

Defense is exactly what the Knicks demonstrate now under Mike Woodson, holding opponents to 87.8 points per game, and that's their best poison to defeat the Heat. That's how the Celtics did it on April 1.

In addition, not only would Carmelo Anthony put on a monster effort in the series, offensively and defensively, to play up to the challenge of facing James, but all of the Knicks would be energized playing in the historic rivalry, which goes back to the 1990s.

While the Heat's pick-and-roll defense is deadly, completely dismantling Jeremy Lin on Feb. 23, the Knicks don't rely on that play call as much. Their offense runs more through Anthony. Depending on how the Heat adjust in their final matchup with the Knicks, April 15 at the Garden, that will be a big determining factor for how the first round could play out. But for now, I'm taking the Heat over the Bulls.

You've heard our takes. Now, we want to hear from you. Which opponent do you think the Knicks would have a better chance against in the first round of the playoffs? Chime in with your comments below.

You can follow Jared Zwerling on Twitter.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Carmelo Anthony
PTS AST STL MIN
23.9 3.4 0.6 35.7
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsA. Stoude... 7.4
AssistsJ. Smith 3.5
StealsJ. Calderon 2.0
BlocksS. Dalembert 1.4