Monday, April 23, 2012
Opening Tip: Bulls or Heat? (Part 2)
By Jared Zwerling
Every weekday throughout the season, ESPNNewYork.com will tackle a burning question about the Knicks in our "Opening Tip" segment.
Today's Burning Question: As the regular season winds down, and the Knicks likely to finish as the seventh or eighth seed, which opponent would they have a better chance against in the first round: the Bulls or Heat?
On the Chicago Tribune's website today, they have a poll question asking Bulls fans to vote on which team, the Knicks or Sixers, would they rather face in the first round.
In a landslide, so far 77 percent of the voters have chosen the Sixers. That's further proof confirming why the Knicks are the scariest first-round opponent in the East. With Carmelo Anthony cooking, Amare Stoudemire back, the Knicks playing shutdown defense since March 14, when Mike Woodson took over the team, you can bet the Bulls and Heat would prefer to avoid Madison Square Garden, one of the toughest visiting arenas to leave with a win.
But you, as a Knick fan, which team would you rather face as the regular season enters its final week: the Bulls or Heat? Here are three factors for each team that may ultimately make up your mind.
WHY THE BULLS ...
Derrick Rose's health status. The All-Star point guard, who's averaging 22.2 points and 7.9 assists for the season, is still not 100 percent due to his sprained right ankle. He played 31 minutes on Saturday against the Mavericks, only scoring 11 points. While the Bulls won, the larger issue for the team is that they only scored 93 points. They entered Saturday's game having won 28 straight games when scoring 100 points or more -- the longest streak in the league -- but they've only scored 100 twice this month. That directly relates to Rose. As for their defense? Not a problem at 87.2 points allowed per game -- tops in the league since March 14. With the Knicks, not only have they been holding opponents to 91.7 points per game since that date -- the fourth-best mark during that span since Woodson took over the team -- they're scoring just a shade under 100 points per game. So the Knicks have offense and defense working for them right now. Even if Rose does play, the Knicks have Iman Shumpert to rattle Rose a bit.
Melo would be a menace for Luol Deng. The Knicks simply have more offensive firepower right now than the Bulls -- and that comes in the form of Anthony, who's been arguably playing the best overall ball (offensively and defensively) in his career. In a home-and-home with the Bulls on April 8 and 10, Anthony scored 43 and 29 points, respectively, and in the first matchup, he hit two big 3-pointers late to put the Knicks on top for good, 100-99. The second game didn't end favorably for the Knicks because they got outrebounded 51-33, which led to the Bulls' 25 second-chance points (in comparison, the Knicks only had five). But with Anthony playing like he's been playing since April 3, scoring (29.9 points average) and passing (3.6 assists average, including 10 on April 17 in a 118-110 win over the Celtics), the Knicks will be able to remain competitive in every game during the series.
Tyson Chandler can keep up with the nimble Joakim Noah. Chandler is one of the few players in the league who can D up the best centers in the game one-on-one. First off, he maintains great positioning in the post, hardly ever allowing a big man to drive by him. That's also a credit to his quick lateral footwork, while still holding that solid stance. Then, when his opponent is about attempt a shot, Chandler's long arms and timing are able to disrupt his concentration and force him to miss. Entering the weekend, the Knicks were allowing 0.73 points per possession on just 39.5 percent shooting in post-up defense. As for Noah, his best asset is his activeness. He seems to never let up, especially on the offensive glass. In fact, he's third in the league with an average of 3.8 offensive rebounds, and that helps enable the Bulls to score a league-high 15.8 second-chance points per game. If Chandler can limit Noah's touches around the basket, that will be a major kicker for the Knicks.
WHY THE HEAT ...
They can be exposed in their halfcourt offense. There's no denying how good the Heat are when they get out and run, but when the pace slows down and they have to initiate a halfcourt set, that can be a different story. One of their biggest weaknesses is halfcourt execution when the game bogs down. In general, their offense is mostly about beating defenders off the dribble with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and, of course, they are two of the best at it, along with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook -- the equivalent of the Heat in the Western Conference. But if they play a team that can force them into grind-out possessions, which the Knicks can do because of their defense -- not to mention, that's how playoff games become -- that's where they're vulnerable, especially if they're not making 3-point shots. Already, they don't get the ball much inside at all. Overall, the Heat can end up getting very stagnant offensively in their halfcourt offense in a pressure-filled game, and that's exactly what the Knicks want to hear.
Chandler knows the Heat very well. Who was the center on the 2011 champion Mavericks? Chandler, the man who provided the best help defense during last year's NBA Finals. Chandler has a way of getting under James and Wade's skin in the paint. James power drives through the lane can work against him because Chandler's great at taking charges. And Wade's runners in the lane can work against him because Chandler's height and long arms are distractions. Even if the Knicks' guards get beat on the perimeter, Chandler will put himself on the line every time to try to stop the super duo. And he'll prove to be effective enough to keep the Knicks in every game. He just has to stay out of foul trouble.
The motivation of a rivalry renewed. If you're worried at all about the Knicks' energy level entering the playoffs, you definitely won't have to spend a moment's notice thinking about it if they play the Heat. If the Knicks and Heat end up facing each other, it will be the most intriguing matchup of the first round (East and West). Everyone remembers the Knicks-Heat playoff games from the late 1990s to early 2000s, when they were involved in several altercations and intense seven-game series. Knicks fans may not want to see the Heat, but the Knicks themselves would be up for it, especially Anthony. "It'll be a fun series, I'll tell you that," he said last Monday on ESPN New York 1050's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" show. "Just to be a part of that and go up against them guys, it's always fun, it's always exciting, it's always intense. And the guys on my team, to where we're at right now, and the identity of our team that we have, we're not going to be an easy matchup." When your star player is not backing down from a challenge, that will only pump up the entire team. As they say, every army needs a Theseus.
On paper, the Knicks should prefer to play the Bulls, and it's not only because of a gimpy D-Rose. They have an edge in three key individual matchups: Anthony vs. Deng, Stoudemire vs. Carlos Boozer and Chandler vs. Noah. The Heat, on the other hand, not only has more offensive firepower than the Bulls, but has also been playing in rhythm across the board lately. "That process has already been happening," coach Erik Spoelstra told ESPN.com's Heat Index last week. "Guys are feeling much more comfortable with the rotation. [It's] fairly similar to what we're used to. Guys are understanding their roles and getting confident in how we're playing and totally understanding what makes us successful." The Heat, just like last year, will be very dangerous come playoff time, especially with James, Wade and Bosh getting some extra rest this week.
With that said, who do you think: Bulls or Heat? Leave us your comments below.