- Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Staff Writer
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How do you know the Chicago Bulls' defense completely stifled the Heat in Game 1? Just remember this number:
23 -- as in the number of combined free throw and 3-point attempts by the Heat.
That's Miami's lowest total of the season, breaking their previous low of 26 on Dec. 6, when the Milwaukee Bucks held them to just eight free throws and 18 3-point attempts. How remarkable is that 23 figure? It's half the Heat's regular season average of 46 combined free throw and 3-point attempts.
A central tenet of playing good defense is keeping the opponent away from high-efficiency areas on the court. Lock down the perimeter and don't let the opponent get to the free throw line. Accomplish those two tasks and you're golden.
The Bulls did an outstanding job of the neutralizing the Heat's potent offense, something the Celtics struggled with in the conference semifinals. The Heat are designed to terrorize opponents with a drive-and-kick attack. It's why Heat president Pat Riley signed Mike Miller, James Jones and Mike Bibby -- three players with résumés as knockdown 3-point shooters. Riley understood that the best way to maximize the talents of penetrating foul-drawers -- LeBron James and Dwyane Wade -- is to surround them with snipers. If you collapse on those two, they'll make you pay for it.
But the Bulls' defense embodies the perfect antidote to that attack: length and discipline. Through coach Tom Thibodeau's direction, their instincts tell them not to gamble, and they don't need to because of their far reach. Joakim Noah owns the reputation as one of the top defensive centers in the league, not because he tallies a ton of blocked shots, but because he can cover ground and contest without fouling. In his prime, Tim Duncan did this better than anybody. (Actually, Duncan still has the lowest foul rate among regular centers, and by a wide margin).
In the rare event that James and Wade turn the corner on the Bulls' defense, they encounter Noah and his outstretched arms. If you watch the possessions where Wade and James settled for jumpers in the halfcourt offense, you'll notice a common figure in those possessions: Noah in the paint.
If the Heat want more 3-point shots, they'll have to keep Jones on the court. He's the Heat's best spot-up shooter and the only one they've been able to lean on in the playoffs. He received 24 minutes in Game 1 but took only one 3-pointer during his time on the floor. The Heat need to run their offense thoroughly and get to second and third triggers, or else they'll waste Jones' presence on the court. He'll get open but not on impulsive isolations. Expect the Heat to try to use Jones as a decongestant, opening up the paint for the Big Three to thrive.
Can the Heat make the adjustment? Here's another number to remember:
49, as in the number of combined free throw and 3-point attempts the Heat generated in their next matchup against the Bucks after that Dec. 6 game.