Miami Heat Index: Derrick Rose

Taj Gibson
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Is Taj Gibson and the deep Chicago Bulls bench the key to beating the Heat?

In another installment of the Heat Index's 3-on-3 series, our writers give their takes on the storylines before the Heat host the Bulls (47-15).

1. Fact or Fiction: You'd say Miami's odds at the 1-seed are better than 10%.

Tom Haberstroh: Fiction. I don't think the Heat winning tonight is a given. And even then, the cards are strongly stacked against them going forward. For the Heat to have a real chance, the Bulls would pretty much have to lose out the rest of the way. Alas, the Cavaliers remain on their schedule. There's a better chance that Tom Thibodeau is on the next cover of GQ than the Bulls losing to the Cavs.

Michael Wallace: Fact. If the Heat win tonight to pull within one game of the Bulls in the loss column, I can see this coming down to one of the tie-breakers for the No. 1 seed in the East - not that it would even matter much to Miami. The Heat still have two games against the woeful Wizards in addition to one against a Houston team fighting for its playoff life and a Boston team that could chose to rest its key players next week. I'd set the percentage at closer to 30, with it obviously rising with a win tonight.

Brian Windhorst: Fiction. That seems about right, the Heat are two games back with five games to play and there's quite a lead to overcome. If the Heat are able to win tonight, those odds would increase a little bit, but they would still need to win out and not just hope the Bulls lose, but also to lose to an Eastern Conference team. Let's put it this way, I wouldn't put money on the Heat getting that first seed. But getting a victory tonight would have some other more guaranteed benefits.

2. Fact or Fiction: Bulls' keys to beating the Heat are in order D-Rose, defense, depth.

Haberstroh: Fact. With Derrick Rose ailing, he's the biggest question mark on both teams. Not only that, he has to show he can withstand the defensive coverage of the Heat, a task he hasn't been consistently able to accomplish. The Bulls' depth is a major boon in normal situations, but we're approaching rotation-crunch time. That won't be as much of a benefit anymore.

Wallace: Fiction. I'd go defense, depth and D-Rose. Chicago's defense must dictate the pace against Miami. The Bulls depth can overwhelm you in waves on most nights. Even with the nagging injuries and time missed this season, you assume Rose would regain some rhythm by the time these teams would meet in the conference finals. So the Bulls don't give themselves much of a chance if their defense isn't on point and if the supporting cast isn't there to bail Rose out after coming up short last season.

Windhorst: Fact. I suppose I agree with that. When playing the Bulls, Rose is always the biggest challenge even when he's not 100 percent. Depth has been the thorn in the Heat's side against Chicago in the last two meetings. It's not realistic maybe to believe the Heat's bench will outscore the Bulls bench but it cannot be a 40-point spread like it was last week. It's got to be more competitive.

3. Fact or Fiction: LeBron will win MVP regardless of tonight.

Haberstroh: Fiction. LeBron's popularity among the public and the voting media fluctuates more wildly than the Dow. Seems unwise to etch anything in stone until the end of the regular season. Haven't we learned by now that this is a "What have you done for me lately" world?

Wallace: Fact. I just don't get the sense that the outcome of tonight's game would sway the feelings for LeBron one way or another. Now having said that, if folks just refuse to give it to him, the only candidate out there I believe can make a late run and increase their vote total at this point is Chris Paul. And with the emergence of Russell Westbrook and recent play of James Harden, my feeling is that Paul is more likely to take potential votes away from Kevin Durant than he is to swipe some from LeBron.

Windhorst: Fiction. I do get the sense that LeBron has become the narrow front runner over Kevin Durant. But I also don't think anyone has a compelling case and if there's a stumble it could swing the vote. I do believe, however, that a great performance on national television could lock it up for him.

How Haslem and the Heat stopped Rose

January, 30, 2012
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
Derrick Rose
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
How did the Heat buy time for LeBron and Bosh to contest Derrick Rose's shot? Credit Udonis Haslem.

MIAMI -- Udonis Haslem was flat on his back when he watched Derrick Rose’s potential game-tying floater descend toward the rim. As odd as it sounds, Haslem had no idea that Rose was the one who shot it.

“Once I went down, I didn’t even see what happened,” Haslem said.

Haslem may not have seen who shot the ball, but he did his job: stop Rose from getting to the rim. Rose ended up missing the shot and the Heat survived a close battle against the rival Bulls.

Many will remember the game because LeBron rode his bike to the arena, or that LeBron hurdled a standing NBA player, or that Rose missed two free throws, or that LeBron missed two free throws. Those are all important ingredients to a dramatic and bizarre win for the Heat, but don’t overlook the impact of Haslem’s gutsy defensive play in the final seconds.

With 9.9 seconds remaining in the game and down two points, the Bulls had possession of the ball. It was a sideline out-of-bounds play following a timeout and the Heat knew what was coming. The Bulls had already used the play many times this season, recently to beat the Hawks on a similar final possession earlier this month. The Heat did their homework before the game.

"They’ve won a lot of games with this one trigger and we wanted to make sure that we were prepared for that," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game.

Sunday's play was slightly different than the ones that Spoelstra and the team studied. In that instance against the Hawks, it was Joakim Noah who dished to Luol Deng from the high-post for the go-ahead layup. But on Sunday, both of those players were on the bench as Deng sat out due to injury and Noah had already fouled out.

The personnel here is important because Carlos Boozer -- who took the place of Noah -- missed a golden opportunity to hit Rip Hamilton -- who took the place of Deng -- for an easy bucket after Hamilton cut to the rim. Instead of dumping it to Hamilton, Boozer hurried a pass out to Rose at the top of the key. As you can see, no one was near Hamilton as he cut to the rim.

But the Bulls still had a chance to make a shot -- a good chance, actually, since Rose held possession of the ball at the top of the key for a pick-and-roll. The Heat struggled all game to keep Rose from penetrating through the lane throughout the game, but they were able to stop him when it mattered most.

How did they do it?

Before we get to the heady rotation from Haslem, we must first point out that Rose split the pick-and-roll coverage so sharply that it caused Bosh to slip on the floor trying to change direction. At that point, the Heat's defense looked broken and vulnerable for yet another acrobatic finish by Rose at the rim.

"Once he turns the corner," Spoelstra said, "All bets are off.”

Usually when Rose sees daylight in these situations, it's over. But not this time. Haslem met him just beneath the free throw line, allowing Bosh to recover from his fall. Haslem had been shading off of Taj Gibson, who was standing just inside the perimeter.

“That is a veteran warrior who has the awareness, the quickness and the guts to make a read like that," Spoelstra said of Haslem.

Haslem rotated to wall off the paint and impede Rose's path. But he didn't just slow down Rose; he stopped him in his tracks when he'd normally swerve around en route to the rim.

But notice who was wide open in the corner. That was Hamilton again as Wade roamed underneath the rim.

Like, wide open.

If this sounds familiar, there's a reason. Last season in Chicago, the Heat were burned in a similar late-game situation where Rose kicked it out to Deng in the corner after penetration. Wade roamed too far underneath and Deng hit the game-winner from the corner.

This time, Rose didn't kick it out to the corner shooter. Instead, he appeared to be thrown out of rhythm by Haslem's rotation.

"I saw an open lane [for Rose]," Haslem said. "It looked like he was coming down the lane and with him being a superstar, I felt like he’s going to try to make the play to try to win the game."

Interesting words from Haslem. This is where the macho, hero mentality that consumes our crunch-time conversation might actually be a disadvantage. Was Rose playing predictable basketball? Haslem banked on his intuition that Rose wanted to make the game-winning shot rather than make the game-winning pass. To be sure, Rose has made that pass before, but not on this occasion. Haslem's feeling proved to be critical, as it allowed him to sag deep in the lane and make the stop.

Wade was right behind Haslem on the play. He, too, assumed Rose was going to penetrate and try to win the game.

"We knew the ball was going to be in his hands," Wade said. "UD did a great job of stepping up, and making him change his mind on where he wanted to go."

With Hamilton waiting in the corner and the clock winding down, Rose spun around on his pivot foot after his impact with Haslem, giving both Bosh and LeBron just enough time to contest the shot.

As Haslem crashed to the floor, Rose took his shot without a whistle blown by the referees. Haslem wanted the call, but it didn't matter.

"Regardless of whether we thought it was a charge or not, it knocked him off his timing so he couldn’t get to the floater and couldn’t get to the rim," Spoelstra said.

You'll notice Shane Battier at the top of the key. He was glued to Kyle Korver on the perimeter. Battier couldn't watch the play because he had his back to the ball. But he did see the play develop in his mind before he stepped out onto the floor; Spoelstra drew it up in the preceding timeout.

As one of the top charge-takers in the game, Battier knows a thing or two about when to take a charge. With the game on the line, do defenders like Haslem ever get that charge call with only a few seconds left?

"Never," Battier said. "You have to commit an act of violence maybe involving an animal or something deviant for them to call a charge there."

So if Haslem was never going to get the call, he was wrong to take the charge, right?

"See, that’s the misnomer," Battier said. "The charge is effective because it puts doubt into the offensive player’s mind. Is the ref going to call it? No, but Rose stuttered and any doubt you create is a win for the defense."

Of course, Rose's shot attempt didn't go in, thanks to the preparation of Spoelstra, the heads-up play from Haslem and of course, some luck. Rose had hit a bunch of those shots earlier in the game, but missed it when he needed it most.

"It’s a great shot," LeBron said of Rose's floater. "He just came up short."
LeBron James
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Derrick Rose heard LeBron James loud and clear in the East finals. Is this the year he beats the Heat?

The Chicago Bulls are off to their best start since the Jordan days, and on Sunday, they'll be looking for revenge. It's the first matchup between these two teams since the Heat ended the Bulls' breakout season in the Eastern Conference finals in five games.

Does Rose have a leg up on LeBron for MVP this season? Is Rose a better big-game player than LeBron or D-Wade? Was Rip Hamilton a bigger signing than Shane Battier? Will the Bulls repeat as East regular-season champs? Will the Bulls reach the Finals?

In another edition of the Heat Index's 5-on-5 series, our stable of writers and voices play some "Fact or Fiction" with the storylines surrounding Sunday's Bulls-Heat matchup.

1. Fact or Fiction: Rose has a better shot at MVP in 2011-12 than LeBron.

Jon Greenberg, Fiction. LeBron James' biggest detriment is himself, and aside from an early hiccup, his game is blossoming again. I don't know whether Rose can do anything new to impress the voters. Plus, if Hamilton is healthy, Rose's scoring will go down.

Tom Haberstroh, Heat Index: Fiction. Unless the Bulls challenge their own regular-season win record, I can’t see Rose repeating. To win in consecutive seasons, statistical dominance is a requirement. LeBron, however, is in the midst of one of the most productive and efficient seasons of all time. That kind of performance is what it takes to make a more compelling story than Rose’s campaign.

Beckley Mason, TrueHoop Network: Fiction. Derrick Rose was brilliant last season, but he also benefited from a compelling narrative of improvement. I actually prefer how Rose is playing this season, but his numbers are down a bit, and he'll likely miss a few games to rest his foot. James appears to be indestructible, and this season he's the one turning heads with his improved post game and absurd efficiency.

Michael Wallace, Heat Index: Fiction. LeBron already has the momentum he needs, considering his remarkable play over the nine total games Dwyane Wade has missed. Rose was a very nice and deserving winner for how he led the Bulls last season. But that element of surprise is no longer there. This defaults to LeBron.

Brian Windhorst, Heat Index: Fact. The sense is that after what happened in the Finals last season, LeBron is going to be hard-pressed to win another MVP before he wins a title. Unless he and the Heat vastly separate from the rest of the league, which isn't happening, there's probably too much lingering doubt. Of course the MVP is a regular-season award, and it's for this regular season, not last year's playoffs. But the voters might be hesitant to give James a third trophy with the playoff reputation -- two poor Finals and a meltdown in the 2010 second round -- he's carrying.

2. Fact or Fiction: Needing to win one game, you pick Rose over Wade or LBJ.

Greenberg: Fact. I was tempted to say Wade for obvious reasons, but I'll take Rose because of his athleticism and ability to finish and draw fouls. I'm very curious to watch him going against LeBron again late in the game to see what the young MVP has learned.

Haberstroh: Fiction. Although Dwyane Wade might be the better bet in the last few minutes, I prefer to have LeBron for the full 48. His defensive versatility makes up for his passivity concerns down the stretch. Most games (playoffs or not) don't come down to a final possession anyway.

Mason: Fiction, and a trick question to boot! It depends on their opponent and teammates, but I prefer someone who can dominate the game at the defensive end as well. Both LeBron and Wade can completely neutralize a talented wing scorer and defend the rim, so I'd lean toward one of them.

Wallace: Fiction. I'd take LeBron or Wade based on their larger bodies of work. Of the three, my first option would be the only one among them who has the ring to prove he's survived these moments on the ultimate stage before: Wade.

Windhorst: Fiction. I'd rather have Dwyane Wade. He's a champion. He's a vocal and emotional leader. He's fearless. He's experienced. He's impossible to guard when he's on. These things can't be said about Rose or LeBron.

3. Fact or Fiction: R. Hamilton means more to CHI than S. Battier to MIA.

Greenberg: Fact. When Rip is healthy, that is. Hamilton has been a game-time decision for half his Bulls career, but when he plays, the Bulls are a fast-breaking, ball-moving thing of beauty. I know you can't judge Battier by the numbers, but a healthy Hamilton is better by any metric.

Haberstroh: Fact. If the Heat didn’t have Mike Miller and James Jones, I might give the edge to Battier. But even though Hamilton is a shell of his former self, he can give the Bulls exactly what they need: a pressure reliever for Rose and a nuisance for Wade.

Mason: Fact. Battier isn't exactly redundant, but he's far from crucial. Hamilton provides an offensive focal point when Rose sits, and his passing really loosens up the Bulls' offense.

Wallace: Fact. If all works out according to plan, Hamilton will not only be a regular starter, he'll also be a nightly finisher for the Bulls and a key sidekick for Rose. Battier will be a solid bench rotation player and defensive specialist, but Rip will potentially have a bigger impact role.

Windhorst: Fact. Hamilton not only gives the Bulls an upgrade at the wing and scoring they potentially need badly, he's also loaded with playoff experience with a reputation of getting it done in the clutch. Also his offensive style is an asset to have against a team like the Heat, where he can truly challenge a player like Wade by making him move all over the court on defense. Battier has already made an impact with the Heat by taking some defensive pressure off Wade and James, but it would seem that his role would be more limited than Hamilton when he's healthy.

4. Fact or Fiction: The Bulls will be the top seed in the East.

Greenberg: Fact. The Bulls are rolling despite a number of injuries, and that depth will push them to the top seed. The big "if" is Luol Deng's wrist. If he's out, it'll be very tough. They lost one home game, and instead of giving the patented athlete excuses, Rose talked about how mad he was to hear the Pacers celebrating.

Haberstroh: Fact. The Heat couldn’t care less about winning the regular season and might need to rest Chris Bosh, LeBron or Wade for long stretches. Look for the Bulls to own the regular season once again.

Mason: Fact, but just barely. The Bulls seem to have fewer curious letdowns than the Heat, although they don't have the luxury of a second all-world player should Rose's injury issues worsen. This is really a toss-up for me, but the Bulls never look bored, even for stretches, and that should keep them ahead of the Heat.

Wallace: Fact. The Heat simply don't view getting the No. 1 seed in the East as an absolute necessity. They would prefer to rest Wade, LeBron or Chris Bosh rather than chase the best record. Miami could simply repeat what it did last season and win a road game in the playoffs to steal home-court advantage if necessary.

Windhorst: Fact. Their depth and their demeanor seem to indicate that is where they are headed. Their defense is so strong that it is going to carry them almost every night, especially on the road. That is the formula for high-win teams.

5. Fact or Fiction: The Bulls will be the Eastern Conference champs.

Greenberg: Fiction. I picked the Bulls to win it all in the TrueHoop survey, but it's still unclear whether Rose can take LeBron again, because you know that will be the late matchup again: Bulls versus Heat and Derrick versus LeBron in the fourth. If Rose can find a way to win his battle, the Bulls will win their battle. It's what it all comes down to, and they both know it.

Haberstroh: Fiction. Until the Bulls get a legit No. 2 option at shooting guard, expect the Heat to represent the East in the Finals for the foreseeable future. That is, if the Bulls can’t sell Dwight Howard on Chicago.

Mason: Fiction. I like what Hamilton brings to the Bulls, but Ronnie Brewer is perhaps the best player in the league at defending Dwyane Wade. The Bulls don't really play those two at the same time, so I'd expect Hamilton's offensive value to be mitigated by Wade's increased comfort at the other end. In short: Nothing has significantly changed since the Heat spanked the Bulls in the ECF last season.

Wallace: Fiction. No matter where the series is played, the Bulls know the road to the NBA Finals runs through Jamestown in Wade County. The Heat are the team to beat in the East and, barring a major injury, will return to the Finals after dispatching the Bulls. It'll certainly take more than five games this time, though.

Windhorst: Fiction. We'll have to see where everyone's health is if/when they meet in the playoffs. The Bulls have the ability to really slow down the game and rattle the Heat at the offensive end at times. But this team couldn't consistently slow LeBron in either of the past two postseasons. Rose still must prove that he can handle James guarding him as he did so effectively at times in the conference finals last season.

Heat's defense zeroing in on Derrick Rose

May, 23, 2011
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
Derrick Rose
Victor Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images
Derrick Rose is encountering multiple Heat defenders every time he steps foot in the paint.

MIAMI -- Now three years into his career, Derrick Rose has seen every defensive trick and scheme that the NBA has invented.

His relative struggles in the Eastern Conference finals -- relative because he’s still averaging more points than either the Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade or LeBron James and is still shooting a higher percentage than he did in a first-round series against the Indiana Pacers -- are not a result of any tactical wizardry.

It would be an interesting storyline to declare the Heat have come up with an original set of “Rose Rules” to shackle the Chicago Bulls’ most valuable player in the series they now lead 2-1. But that just isn’t the case. The reason Rose is looking merely like a leading scorer instead of the one-man tornado, as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has branded him, is more simplistic.

The Heat are just doing the defensive basics better than anyone Rose has seen in his career. And it is smothering the Bulls’ offense so far in the series.

“Atlanta’s double-team was different, Orlando’s was different,” Rose said Monday. “It’s totally different, they are way athletic.”

What Rose is calling a double-team is the Heat’s pick-and-roll coverage on him so far in the series. Just that he’s using the term “double-team” speaks volumes because, well, the Heat generally aren’t using double-teams. They’re just moving so quickly and playing together so well that it seems like they are doubling him.

“It’s a learning experience,” Rose said. “I have to read what they’re doing.”

Rose is still averaging 23 points and six assists on 39 percent shooting in the three games. That’s pretty good. But considering that’s seven points, four assists and six percentage points lower than his nightly efforts in the previous round against the Hawks, it certainly seems like he’s struggling. With the Bulls having difficulty scoring against the Heat, it is only magnified.

Let’s explain what is going on and how it can be summed up in one possession from the fourth quarter back in Game 2 in Chicago, which is where this series turned into a display of the Heat’s defensive ability.

With the Bulls trailing 76-73 and four minutes left, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau called for a 1-4 pick-and-roll. His team ran it almost perfectly.

Rose had the ball on the wing when Taj Gibson came to set a screen on Rose’s defender, in this case Mike Bibby. Rose turned the corner skillfully and quickly, effectively shaking Bibby and Gibson’s man, Chris Bosh, in the same instant.

He’s literally done this hundreds of times this season and it’s one of the main reasons he’s the MVP. Usually, it will result in an easy shot or a foul at a moment the Bulls badly needed points.

But here is where the Heat are different. When Rose got into the lane there were two Heat defenders already waiting. It slowed him down as he shifted and looked for a crease to release a shot. By the time he got the ball in the air, about four feet from the rim, he was surrounded by all five Heat defenders on the floor. He missed.

This scenario has played out over and over, not usually in the extreme with all five defenders on him but usually with at least three. Rose can beat double-teams, but triple-teams in his scoring zone are proving quite hard. Then there are those quadruple-teams, which the Heat are pulling off regularly as well.

“Our only job is to make sure that when he comes to the basket that he sees three guys if not more,” Wade said. “He’s going to hit some but hopefully we can continue to wear him down at the end of the games where he doesn’t make the same ones he made earlier.”

The Heat are getting away with this because they clearly do not fear any of the other Bulls’ offensive options. They routine leaves them to swarm to Rose no matter who he’s involved with in the pick-and-roll.

All the attention is making it harder for Rose to pass out to the open teammates because of all the hands and arms that tighten around him. In the fourth quarter of Game 3, for example, Rose tried to make the correct play out of a descending triple-team as he drove to the rim. But James intercepted the pass intended for Luol Deng and it resulted in a 3-point play as James got an easy basket and foul at the other end.

Watch all the drives to the basket Rose has attempted in his series and you will routinely see Deng or Kyle Korver or Keith Bogans standing wide open with their hands up waiting for a pass. The Heat even generously leave Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Gibson when they are closer to the basket in even better scoring position. But
Rose is having increasing trouble seeing them or getting it to them.

It has flustered Rose to the point that on Monday he seemed to want to abandon running pick-and-rolls just to relieve some of the pressure that’s been in his face. He’d rather try to just go one-on-one and beat his man that way. In other words, largely just abandon the offense at times.

“That would be great,” Rose said of the suggestion of isolation plays. “I think like more step-ups, things like that, more isolation-type things instead of double-teaming all the time.”

Of course, that’s not a real solution either, which is why the Bulls spent their off day before Game 4 going over film and seeing where they could have Rose exploit the sacrifices the Heat are making to slow Rose. He called them “release points.”

The Bulls will adjust but the Heat won’t much, as they have shown they are selling out to swarm Rose. So far it is working.

“Every series, the team is different and they’re doing something different,” Rose said. “The thing is catching on to it and trying to do something different.”

Heat gain edge and momentum in series

May, 23, 2011
Wallace By Michael Wallace
LeBron James and Chris Bosh
Marc Serota/Getty Images Sport
Body language and momentum suggest the series has turned strongly in Miami's favor.

MIAMI -- There comes a time in every NBA playoff series when the will of one team overwhelms that of the other, when one team realizes its best is better than the other squad's best, when possibility crosses that threshold and creeps toward the inevitable.

That point in the Eastern Conference finals between the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls came midway through the fourth quarter of Game 3 on Sunday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.

The Bulls could very well come back Tuesday and knot this best-of-seven series up at two games apiece. But the gut feeling now is that the Heat delivered the definitive blow in this matchup with Sunday's 96-85 victory to take a 2-1 series lead.

Things won't be the same after this. Sure, Chicago can come back and find a way to make this a competitive series that drags on a bit longer. But if it didn't sink in after the Heat got a split in Chicago with a resounding finish in Game 2 last week, it should be firmly ingrained in the Bulls' minds after what happened at the end of Game 3.

The Heat convinced the Bulls that Miami is simply the better team. Pride won't allow Chicago's players to admit it. Confidence in what his team accomplished this season won't allow coach Tom Thibodeau to acknowledge it.

But everyone who was on the court midway through the fourth quarter knew it.

If body language and facial expressions are any indication, that definitive moment in this matchup might have come with 5:10 left in the fourth quarter, at the end of a lethal Heat run that not only put Miami in command of Game 3, but also in control of the outcome of this series.

It was the sequence in which Derrick Rose saw his path to the basket cut off by Mario Chalmers. Rose tried to launch a cross-court pass to Luol Deng in the corner, but the pass never had a chance because the Heat's swarming defense never gave it one. LeBron James darted through the lane like a strong safety shooting the gap on the football field, stole the pass, raced downcourt and was fouled as he made a layup in transition to give the Heat their largest lead.

Thibodeau immediately called a timeout.

As the players headed toward their respective benches, Joakim Noah shook his head in denial, Carlos Boozer slouched his shoulders and Rose slumped his head and starred down at the court.

At that stage, the Bulls were well on their way to outproducing the Heat in rebounds, 3-point shooting, points in the paint, second-chance points and fast-break scoring. They had four players in double figures, including a 26-point, 17-rebound breakout performance from Boozer.

But none of it mattered. It wasn't enough. Just like it's becoming obvious with each quarter of basketball played that the Bulls don't have enough to overcome the Heat.

“It's definitely frustrating,” Rose said after the game. “Our will wasn't there tonight, where they still found a way to win playing good basketball, moving the ball to one another, playing easy basketball.”

No, it wasn't easy. The Heat are just making it seem that way at times.

For the second time in three games, Thibodeau's defense was able to contain James and Dwyane Wade for most of the game. And for the second time in three games, the Bulls had no answer for Chris Bosh, whose game-high 34 points paced the Heat on a night when James added 22 points and 10 assists and Wade chipped in 17 points and nine rebounds.

Miami carries a 2-1 series edge into Game 4 on Tuesday night, with a chance to take a commanding lead and move one step away from advancing to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2006. The Heat put themselves in this position with another strong closing performance in the fourth quarter.

It wasn't too long ago that closing out close games was considered a weakness for the Heat. Now, it's clearly becoming a strength, during a series in which Miami is conquering what was considered the league's toughest and stingiest defense.

The Heat have not only found a way to match the Bulls' defensive dominance, they're also doing a pretty good job of executing on offense in key stretches. Miami shot 50.7 percent from the floor, converted 25 of 29 free throw attempts and had 20 assists on 34 made baskets.

Simply put: When the going gets tough in the fourth quarter, the Bulls have shot-takers. Meanwhile, the Heat have shot-makers.

“We understand what's going to win this series for us -- and it's defense,” Wade said. “Offensively, we understand it's going to be opportunities … when we're going to go on a run. But defensively, it's all about effort, it's all about toughness and heart at this point.”

It was during that play midway through the fourth quarter when you saw James, Wade and Bosh get that same look in their eyes -- that look of approval when they realized that they didn't just like their chances of beating the Bulls in this series, they now fully expect to do so.

Miami has cracked the code. Wade, James, Bosh and their teammates will still be respectful. They'll still say and do the right things. They still know that Chicago is capable of coming back in Game 4, getting a win and sending the series back to Chicago tied at 2-2.

But it almost feels like the Heat know they've taken the Bulls' best punch. And, as it turns out, it doesn't sting quite as badly as they may have thought coming into this series.

“You definitely respect what they're capable of,” Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. “But we're not focusing on them. We're focusing on us. They're probably one of the most mentally tough teams in the league. But we know it's about us doing what we've got to do. Then, let the chips fall where they may.”

The Heat have reached that moment at which it appears they have their opponent figured out.

That moment came in Game 2 against Boston in the previous series, when the Heat went on that brutal 14-0 run in the fourth quarter. That's when James stood up and faced his Celtics demons. It's when the Heat made the switch from hoping to get past Boston to knowing they would get the job done.

Miami wasn't to be denied after that. At the time, I likened it to the look Buster Douglas had in about the fourth round when he realized he wasn't just in that ring in Tokyo to fight Mike Tyson, but that he was there to beat him.

The Heat had a similar epiphany Sunday night.

The momentum has firmly shifted in this series, despite the MVP, NBA Coach of the Year, home-court advantage and the league's best record all belonging to the team on the other bench.

Now the Bulls are the team desperately searching for answers.

“You have to commit to Wade and James, but that doesn't absolve you from covering the others,” Thibodeau said. “You have to go in with a multiple-effort mindset. You have to close hard. Whenever you put two on the ball, you have to protect the paint and then get back out.”

Sounds like Thibodeau would need to have seven defenders on the court to do all of that.

When you have to defend the Heat, it's always a matter of giving up something.

On Sunday, the Bulls gave up much more than a game to the Heat.

Miami snatched control of this series, and a bit of the Bulls' confidence along with it.

“They're looking at it like we looked at it after Game 1,” James said of Chicago's approach to Tuesday's game. “Saying 'If we can walk out of here with a split, then we feel comfortable going home.' That's how they're thinking.”

It's reached that point in this series -- the turning point.

The Heat are showing they can handle what the Bulls are doing.

And what they're thinking, too.

Heat get the point in Game 3

May, 23, 2011
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
Mario Chalmers
David Dow/NBAE/Getty Images
After a miserable performance in Game 2, Mario Chalmers bounced back in style on Sunday night.

MIAMI -- Heading into Game 3, the Heat’s point guard play was considered an Achilles' heel -- and with good reason. Mike Bibby couldn’t hit a shot, and Mario Chalmers was coming off an atrocious five-minute stint in Game 2. To make matters worse, they were burdened with handling Derrick Rose, a star point guard and the league’s MVP.

But during Sunday’s Game 3 win, the Heat's point guard combo showed a steady hand on both ends of the floor.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has likened Rose to a tornado several times in recent days since the Bulls' leading scorer is an uncontainable force on the court. But oddly enough, Bibby and Chalmers just about contained him.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rose shot just 4-for-12 when guarded by Bibby and Chalmers, including 0-for-3 on isolations. Against the Heat’s point guard tandem, Rose scored just 12 points on 15 plays where he ended the possession. Heading into the game, Rose had scored 50 percent when guarded by Bibby and Chalmers.

“They were great tonight,” LeBron James said after the Sunday’s game. “Our point guards just try to stay in front of him as much as possible, trying to contain him. They’re doing a great job so far.”

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Rose was supposed to chew up the Heat’s point guards and force James and Wade to come to the rescue. After all, Bibby may be the NBA’s most maligned defender at the point guard position, and is a decade older (and slower) than the guy he would have to cover.

Of course, Spoelstra went back to the tornado metaphor when describing Bibby’s play after the game:

“He arguably has the toughest fight of anybody, and that’s trying to get his chest in front of a tornado,” Spoelstra said.

Bibby’s job isn’t necessarily to stay in front of Rose, but to impede his penetration just long enough to allow his help defenders contest the inevitable shot.

A first-quarter possession provided an instructive demonstration of this task. In the open court, Rose dribbled the ball at full speed right at a backpedaling Bibby. Instead of pulling out the red carpet and allowing Rose to drive right to the rim, Bibby stopped Rose’s initial dribble move to his left, and forced Rose to slow down, redirect his momentum into a spin move, then take an unbalanced shot to his right.

Bibby caused Rose to decelerate and, in doing so, allowed Joel Anthony to come over and swat Rose’s attempt at the rim. After hitting Anthony’s hand, the ball ricocheted off of Rose out of bounds. Anthony was credited with the block but if Bibby hadn't provoked Rose to slam on the breaks, Anthony might not have gotten there in time.

Bibby also knocked down two key 3-pointers Sunday, after entering the game 9-for-40 from downtown in the playoffs. His lack of production sunk to all-time lows in the Boston series as his player efficiency rating (PER) dipped to 1.1, the lowest of any player in NBA history with at least 180 minutes of action in a single postseason.

But Spoelstra stuck with Bibby, and the veteran rewarded his patience with timely shooting.

Bibby isn’t the only Heat point guard who needed to turn it around. Chalmers’ five minutes of action in Game 2 was a basketball player’s nightmare. On the playoff stage, he turned the ball over three times, tallied three personal fouls and missed his only shot attempt, a wide-open 3-pointer from the left wing.

Rather than burying Chalmers on the bench Sunday, Spoelstra called his number to start the fourth quarter. Chalmers never came out until the final buzzer.

“It felt good especially after the way I played in Game 2,” Chalmers said. “I think I had a horrible game.”

All season long, Spoelstra has pushed Chalmers -- literally, pushed him -- to get the most out of his young point guard.

Following every Heat practice, after all of Chalmers’ teammates leave the court, Spoelstra takes the court with the 25-year-old to run the same shooting drill over and over. It goes something like this: Spoelstra shoves the third-year guard in his side and Chalmers has to bounce back and shoot the ball off-balance. Twenty times over (see video below).

It's a good thing he got in that extra practice time Saturday. On a second-quarter possession, C.J. Watson trailed behind Chalmers as the Heat point guard took a handoff from Udonis Haslem. As Chalmers grabbed the ball, Watson put his hand on Chalmers' back and shoved him to the left, just like Spoelstra did so many times on Saturday. Chalmers gathered himself and hit a jump shot. Just like he did so many times on Saturday.

Usually, Chalmers is a headache on the basketball court, but he was an unlikely source of calm Sunday, coughing up the ball just once in 21 minutes of action. And the turnover only came after Chalmers ripped the ball from Joakim Noah.

“Our point guards are very key to our team,” James said. “When they play big and make shots and also defend like they are doing, we’re a pretty good team."

Bulls at Heat, Game 3: 5 things to watch

May, 22, 2011
By Kevin Arnovitz and Tom Haberstroh
Heat at Bulls
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
The Heat turned the tide in Game 2, but plenty of questions remain as the series moves to Miami.

Can the energy guys energize the Heat?
Something remarkable happened at the 0:26.7 mark of the third quarter on Wednesday night when Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade checked back into Game 2. Bosh, Wade, LeBron James, Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem shared the floor as teammates for the very first time.

While all the debates raged in recent months about who should play the majority of the minutes at center, or whether the Heat should go without a point guard down the stretch, it was easy to get that this five-man unit was the presumed crunch time lineup for the Heat.

Although they finished a minus-4 in approximately six minutes of floor time in Game 2, their presence underscored an important truth as the series moves to Miami on Sunday:

The Heat have options.

It's not a perfect menu, but with Haslem available and Miller serviceable, the versatility Erik Spoelstra envisioned having at his disposal at the outset of the season now exists.

Haslem and Miller combined for 41 crucial minutes, 15 points (13 of them Haslem's) and 12 rebounds. More than that, the Heat looked like the aggressors in the series for the first time when Haslem entered the game in the first quarter. He might not yet be 100 percent, but Haslem brought some fight to the court. Meanwhile, Miller still leads the league in floor-burn per minute.

Haslem and Miller won't win this series, but against a team that's pummeled the Heat on the boards and generally outworked them all season, these two guys have the will, skills and savvy to allow the Heat's reserve units to hang with the Bulls' bench. So long as they're healthy ...

Is Derrick Rose primed for a breakout?
It seems a bit silly to say that a guy averaging 24.5 points and seven assists per game in a series is still waiting to bust out, but that speaks to the outrageous talent of Rose. While he’s gotten his points, he hasn’t been able to do it efficiently, shooting 37.8 percent from the floor against the Heat defense.

Is his inaccuracy a product of the Heat’s swarming defense, or a 22-year-old just missing shots he normally makes? The Heat’s defense deserves some credit, even if Spoelstra didn’t want to count his blessings at Saturday’s practice. Walling off the paint area isn’t easy against a force like Rose, but they’ve managed to do that in the first two games. He has made just five buckets inside 10 feet in the two games (he normally hits five per game).

When Rose does muster a shot, the Heat have sent multiple bodies to contest his attempts. Mike Bibby has actually looked like a decent defender out there, routinely disrupting Rose’s shot release. The result is that Rose has shot just 31 percent on attempts within 10 feet in this series, which is down significantly from his regular-season rate of 55 percent.

Rose isn’t normally this off on his finishes and Bibby isn’t normally this adept as a defender. Sounds like a recipe for a breakout performance.

The Heat are cured from their rebounding issues, right?
Wrong. Sure, the Heat outrebounded the Bulls 45-41 in Game 2, but the Bulls still pulled down 17 offensive rebounds -- 32.7 percent of their misses. That’s a higher rate than the Bulls collect normally (29.4 percent), so the Heat are not out of the woods quite yet.

The Heat certainly improved in Game 2 on the boards, but it’s also worth pointing out that Joakim Noah sat on the bench for the majority of the second half. His absence -- in addition to Haslem’s presence -- eased the rebounding burden. When the Bulls center is on the floor this series, the Bulls have recovered 40 percent of their misses, compared to just 26 percent when the Florida product rides the pine.

The Heat still haven’t solved Noah, but Haslem may be the key. Following the Heat’s practice Saturday, Spoelstra said he feels much more confident about deactivating Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Erick Dampier now that he has Haslem to crash the boards. What most people may not know is that Haslem was the Heat’s best rebounder this season, even though he gives up several inches to his opponent. If Haslem is even 80 percent healthy, he renders Ilgauskas and Dampier obsolete on this squad.

Even after winning the rebounding edge in Game 2, the Heat have only a 44.9 rebound rate against the Bulls this season, which is still their worst rate against any team. The truth is that they need another 25-plus-rebound performance from James, Wade and Miller.

Will this be the game the Heat finally get out and run?
When the series started, Spoelstra was banking on the fact that the Heat's smaller, quicker lineup would create some transition opportunities. Makes sense, since no team in the NBA scored more points per possession on the break than the Heat.

So how's that plan working out against the Bulls?

Not so good. The Heat have managed only 16 possessions in transition over the first two games of the series (six fewer than Chicago, ironically), and have largely been confined to half-court basketball.

How can this be?

Virtually every fast break begins with either a rebound or a steal, and the Heat were atrocious on Chicago's glass in Game 1 and merely passable in Game 2. They also have yet to force the kinds of turnovers that ignite their patented "skirmishes," when James and Wade get out in the open floor and make magic.

With Haslem's return, the Heat have a player who can rebound and outlet with the best of them. Wade and James renewed their commitment on the glass and are well aware that those open-court opportunities are most lethal when they gobble up missed shots and bolt down the floor.

Has LeBron James entered "The Zone" (and is he staying awhile)?
It wasn't long ago when Heat fans would look up at the scoreboard, see a narrow margin, then worry. Critics reveled in the Heat's failures late in games and took particular pleasure in James' struggles.

There was nothing earth-shattering about LeBron's pair of stat lines in Chicago: 15-6-6 in Game 1 and 29-10-5 in Game 2. But the final minutes of the Heat's win on Wednesday night followed a familiar pattern: James has been a beast when it's mattered most in the postseason.

In the Heat's last three wins, James has seized control of the game in the final minutes of regulation, draining contested jump shots and bullying his way inside. When he threw up a rare miss on Wednesday night inside of two minutes, he simply followed his shot for the putback.

James' crunch-time player efficiency rating (PER) now stands at a gaudy 40.8 and he's effectively running the point for the Heat when the game is tight.

As a result, it seems like ages since we've heard about late-game execution.

Dwyane Wade's unheralded Game 2 defense

May, 19, 2011
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Dwyane Wade
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Dwyane Wade's defense got lost among the more compelling stories that came out of Game 2.

Lost amid the inspiring return of Udonis Haslem and the late-game heroics of LeBron James was the best performance nobody is talking about this morning -- Wade's defense in Game 2.

Wade was simply brilliant on the Bulls' side of the floor Wednesday night. His 40 minutes in Game 2 were a composite of his best defensive attributes, both his instincts and his fundamentals. Over the course of the evening, he covered all three of the Bulls' shooting guards then, when the game was on the line in the fourth quarter, he took on the assignment of handling Derrick Rose.

Wade's electrifying defensive effort began 15 seconds into the game on Chicago's very first possession. Wade was covering Keith Bogans, who has been a lightning rod for Chicago fans all season. With Bogans on the court in the postseason, the Bulls are scoring only 94.4 points per 100 possessions. When he's on the bench, they're a robust 106.8 points per 100 possessions.

Like many teams this season, the Heat penalized the Bulls for Bogans' presence and Wade was the main disciplinarian. We saw this dynamic at work 15 seconds into the game, when Wade blocked Carlos Boozer at the rim. How was Wade in position to make the play? When Boozer caught a pass from Rose at the foul line on a slip screen, Wade was already set up in the paint -- not coming over, not collapsing -- but waiting with a magazine and a cup of coffee. Where's Bogans? In the right corner completely unattended.

If the pass had gone out to Bogans and he drained an open 3-pointer, we'd probably skewer Wade for cheating off his man. Bogans has drained a very respectable 21-for-46 from 3-point range in the postseason, but Wade has the quicks and instincts to be a defensive playmaker. Between the Bulls' reluctance to entrust Bogans and his more pedestrian career 35.5 percent mark from beyond the arc, Wade had every incentive to be aggressive as a rover. And in the 16 minutes Bogans was on the floor, the Heat outscored the Bulls 32-23.

When you watch the Bulls' offense grind during these possessions, there's a single constant -- Wade was everywhere. When the Heat loaded up in the lane on a Rose-Boozer pick-and-roll, forcing a reverse pass to Luol Deng in the left corner, there was Wade flying in to close out on the 3-point attempt. When Rose tried to go left off a high pick and got a step on Mike Bibby, there was Wade coming to the rescue, putting his body in front of a driving Rose at the foul line, forcing a kickout. And when the Heat trapped Rose on a high screen-and-roll with Joakim Noah, who was there to rotate promptly onto the 7-foot-1 Bulls center even though he was giving up eight inches?

Dwyane Wade. And not once, but routinely.

At one point in the third quarter, Wade picked up Noah after the center caught a pass off a screen from Rose. Noah was about 12 feet away from the rim just off the left block, and there was Wade harassing him. If you're looking for a defensive crescendo for the Heat in the second half, the moment when they begin to tighten the screws on the Bulls, this was it. With nowhere to go and Wade smothering him, Noah looked for anywhere he could pass the ball. Wade had Noah under such duress that Bosh darted over to pin the Bulls big man against the baseline. Noah eventually delivered a dangerous, leaping pass way back up top, but it was another empty possession for Chicago.

Aside from the small-on-big block of Boozer, none of these snippets is highlight reel material. They were subtle wrinkles in the larger fabric of the game. You don't hand a game ball to a guard for anticipating Deng's drive to the middle, beating the lanky forward to the spot, then forcing him to backtrack, as Wade did in the third quarter. But if we want to fully understand why Chicago struggled so mightily to get anything accomplished in the half court, we should start by looking at the work Wade did as a help defender.

For all the quality team defense Wade played in Game 2, his finest moments came during the Bulls' anemic fourth quarter. Chicago scored only 10 points in the period, and Wade spent the bulk of that time as Rose's primary defender. Rose failed to convert a field goal in the fourth quarter. In the 11 possessions Wade guarded Rose, the Bulls' point guard saw paint exactly three times. He earned a couple of trips to the line, once when he beat Wade with a left-handed drive (but missed the pair of free throws), the next when he rejected an Omer Asik screen and slithered away from Wade and drew another foul.

During the six-minute stretch he was guarded by Wade, Rose never attempted a field goal. James relieved Wade midway through the fourth quarter, as Wade slid over to guard Deng -- who had no better success against Wade than Rose had. Yet Wade wasn't done tormenting Rose. With the Bulls on their last legs, down seven with 1:20 remaining in the game, Rose drew Wade on the switch. Rose tried to push ahead with the ball, but couldn't make a dent past 21 feet, so he reversed course and pitched the ball over to Deng, who sent it right back. Wade was locked in, yielding maybe 18 inches to the MVP. Rose took a single dribble to his left, then launched from beyond the arc.

The shot never reached the rim. Wade got his fingertips on the ball.

Heat teach Derrick Rose hard lessons

May, 19, 2011
Krolik By John Krolik
Derrick Rose
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
As good as Derrick Rose is, this series against the Heat will be a valuable learning experience.

In 2006, LeBron James was eliminated from the playoffs when the Pistons held him to 44.2 percent shooting in the series.

In 2007, the Cavaliers were swept out of the Finals when the Spurs held James to just 35.6 percent shooting in the series.

In 2008, the Celtics beat the Cavaliers by holding James to 35.5 percent shooting in the series.

In 2010 (LeBron was fantastic in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals), the Celtics eliminated the Cavaliers as James shot 44.7 percent in the series and a combined 11-for-34 in Games 5 and 6.

In each series, weaknesses in LeBron's game were revealed. He was the most-hyped prospect in the history of the game, the best 18-year-old rookie of all time, and had an easier time getting to the basket and converting or setting up his teammates than perhaps any player in the history of basketball; last season, he won his second straight league MVP award. But when he faced a capable defensive team that walled off the paint and forced him to rely on his ancillary skills to win, he was exposed and ultimately sent packing.

At 22, Derrick Rose may be the most exciting and complete young player since LeBron himself, and was actually a younger recipient of the league's MVP award than James was. At an age when some players are still finishing up their college careers, Rose has already established himself as one of the five best players in the league, and that may be a conservative statement.

Even though Rose's shots weren't falling on Wednesday night, his impact was evident. He put constant pressure on the Heat defense by getting to the rim and forcing them to rotate out of position. While the Bulls didn't get any second-chance points directly off of Rose's misses, the scrambles he forces have been a major cause of the Heat's rebounding struggles.

Rose's passing was also on target. He pushed the break effectively, and made 5 of the 11 jump shots he took, some of which stopped Heat runs. Rose, like LeBron, is so good that he's capable of making a big impact on a game even when his shot isn't falling.

That said, the MVP and phenom has been going through some growing pains this postseason, and he had some especially sharp ones against the Heat's defense on Wednesday night. The Heat trapped Rose effectively when the Bulls tried to set ball screens for him, and Miami was there to contest Rose when he did get to the rim. Rose shot 2-of-12 from the paint in Game 2, and had more of his attempts blocked (3) than he had made layups (2).

This game wasn't an isolated incident, either: Rose has shot only 42 percent from the field in the playoffs, and this is the fourth game out of 13 in which he has finished with more field goal attempts than points. Rose's point totals have been high, but the truth is that his per-possession numbers have more closely resembled Jordan Crawford's than Michael Jordan's throughout the playoffs.

Rose is clearly an incandescent talent, and the skill, energy and depth of his supporting cast are the envy of every other superstar in (or out) of the playoffs. He could easily win a ring at 22, something neither James nor Jordan was able to accomplish. And as LeBron's 5-for-15 night in Game 1 showed, no NBA player is every truly a finished product, no matter how talented or skilled.

Still, it does appear that James and Wade, players with Rose's level of talent and nearly half a decade more experience to draw on, have endured the lessons the Heat defense is currently teaching Rose.

Wade's pull-up jump shot has been cash. He's been splitting traps like they're made of smoke, and he has snaked around the rim defenders (with Omer Asik being a notable exception) that stymied Rose on Wednesday.

As for LeBron, he's demonstrated an improved post game and jump shot to deal with the lack of space that San Antonio, Detroit and Boston utilized to destroy him during his younger years, and the last three Heat victories have been the product of some clutch LeBron jumpers.

Rose is showing how much impact one special talent can have on a playoff series, but James and Wade are giving Rose a glimpse of what he could look like if he learns to hone that talent and use it to defeat top defenses as he matures and adds new facets to his game.

James and Wade are further along on their learning curve than Rose, but that may turn out to be a moot point. Rose is hungry; he can absolutely be the best player on the floor despite his lack of experience, and the Bulls have shown that they're more than capable of getting through the Heat and going to the NBA Finals whether or not Rose trusts his jumper.

The better news is that series like this one, and contests like Game 2 against defenses like Miami's D, will force Rose to progress in the next few years. He'll become more comfortable in his all-around game than he can possibly imagine being now.

As great as Rose's MVP season was, it might only be the first chapter in a truly legendary career. All the Heat can really do is hope their defense can keep Rose contained well enough to make that first chapter an unhappy one.

Was Chicago the right option for LeBron?

May, 18, 2011
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
In Game 1, LeBron James was unable to break through Chicago’s depth. He drove toward the rim, only to find thickets of limbs converging. On the other end of the court, 22-year-old Derrick Rose attacked the hoop from angles that defy geometry. It was an impressive display from an ascendant Bulls team. And if they prove strong enough to advance past the Heat, it will be natural to assume that Chicago was the correct destination way back when “South Beach” was The Decision.

But even though Chicago may have offered a better chance at a championship, Miami was the right path for LeBron’s legacy. While winning a title is crucial to that legacy, it’s also important to be recognized as the reason for winning.

Steve Mitchell/US PresswireWould teaming up with Derrick Rose been better off for LeBron James' legacy?

Had James joined Rose, it would have been a pact with a transcendent star four years his junior. That means Derrick would be well positioned to get credit when LeBron’s skills diminish.

Recency bias rewards whom we last remember as a team’s primary weapon. That’s one reason why the “Showtime” Lakers are Magic’s squad that Kareem happened to play for. Back in the early '80s, Abdul-Jabbar topped Johnson in player efficiency rating through their first four years together -- and did so while swatting shots at Dwight Howard levels. But to my memory, Abdul-Jabbar is the planted scarecrow who feebly flaps behind the wind gust of a Johnson fast break.

Now, the age gulf between Magic and Kareem is a vast 12 years. The future talent gap between say, a 27-year-old Rose and a 31-year-old James might be nonexistent, or even swing in James’ favor. But it is safe to posit that joining a younger superstar is a dangerous proposition for one’s pre-eminence on a team. And pro basketball is the sport where people form a cult of personality around the perceived “alpha dog” of a successful squad.

To bring up another L.A. example, fans wear Nike’s “Black Mamba 5 Rings” T-shirt as though Lakers titles matter only because they burnished Kobe’s credentials. We enjoy living through a singular basketball hero -- so it’s a massive boon to be “the man” among winners.

In coming to Miami, LeBron was ridiculed for joining a team already owned by another superstar. Dwyane Wade’s the incumbent, a former champion, and the oft-cited reason for why his new teammate will never be “the man.”

While this train of thought has resonance today, the tune will change. Time should dull Wade’s genius, seasons before it grazes LeBron’s talents -- Wade is a shade less than three years older. If the two are comparably efficient in the present, the taller, younger player should contrast more favorably as we drift into the horizon.

Durability is also a concern for Miami’s incumbent superstar. Wade has missed 80 more games than his small forward counterpart since they came into the league. Kevin Pelton once ran numbers on players similar to Wade, and found a lot of truncated careers. In Pelton’s Basketball Prospectus projections, Wade is forecast to get progressively worse than LeBron, starting in 2012. The Flash-ominous narrative is also augmented by this Henry Abbott piece on Wade’s possibly career-shortening running form.

You might argue that the Heat will always be “Wade’s team,” even if his greatness wanes due to age or injury. After all, he was there first. And I could countenance that belief had a preseason injury not caused so many people to rescind Wade’s top-dog status. This occurred at the first sign of weakness, so imagine what will happen when he actually weakens.

Right now it would seem, consciously or not, James made a grand bargain: He’s gone to a championship contender for which he’ll likely be remembered as the best player. But the question that may haunt his career is, “Was Chicago the right option?"

Perhaps the Bulls were his best choice for winning titles and the wrong choice for impacting our memories. For LeBron, joining with Rose would have been dangerous to his legacy in a way that joining with Wade would not have been.

LeBron James and the MVP referendum

May, 15, 2011
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
LeBron James
Getty Images/AP Photo
Who will prove to be most valuable in the East finals? LeBron James could be, thanks to his defense against Derrick Rose.

As diplomatic as LeBron James sounds, no reigning two-time MVP wants to cede the award to someone else. But that’s what happened this season when Derrick Rose, the sensational 22-year-old point guard who helped propel his Chicago team to a league-high 62 wins in the regular season, took the honor from James in 2010-11.

And in this upcoming battle for a ticket to the NBA finals, James has a chance to put his value on display.

The East finals will be a referendum of the 2010-11 MVP vote. As much as it is about Bulls versus Heat, it’s also about Rose versus James. This is James' opportunity for redemption. There’s the lightning-quick point guard who shoulders his team’s offense and then there’s the do-everything talent who knows no boundaries on the court.

Who’s more valuable?

Well, it depends on how you define value, doesn’t it?

When a coach puts his lineup together, he’s implicitly going through a checklist of basketball commodities. You need a ball handler to run the offense. You need someone who can knock down 3s and space the floor. You need someone who can rebound, protect the rim and block shots. You need someone who can guard the opposing team’s top scorer. You need someone who doesn’t mind doing the dirty work. You need someone to lead and take over when the team is in disarray.

And in the NBA, there is no player who checks off more boxes on that list than James. He is a Swiss Army knife on the hardwood. He can fulfill nearly every basketball requirement on both ends of the floor.

Offensively, Rose and James could be considered equals more or less. In the traditional stat line, you can see the symmetry in the regular season. James tallied 25 points, seven assists and three turnovers per 36 minutes on 33 percent shooting from downtown. Rose averaged 24 points, seven assists and three turnovers per 36 minutes on 33 percent shooting from downtown. Sure, that oversimplifies things, but you get the point.

But once we go beyond that, that’s where James distinguishes himself. There are two sides to basketball -- offense and defense -- and defensively, there’s no question that Rose is more limited than James. That’s part of the nature of being a point guard and standing 6-foot-3. Rose’s 190-pound stature doesn’t allow him to guard big men and, on this Bulls team, he doesn’t necessarily have to.

However, as we’ll see in this series, James can man up on anyone from Rose to Joakim Noah. And that’s value, even if it doesn’t show up in the box score.

When talking to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra about the Bulls matchup, every other word revolves around James’ versatility. Not just on offense, but on defense as well. Spoelstra knows he can stick James on Rose on one possession, Carlos Boozer the next and Noah the next.

“There really hasn’t been a defender like him probably since Dennis Rodman,” Spoelstra said. “Now, LeBron also has the responsibility of getting triple-doubles for us as well along with playing the Dennis Rodman role of guarding whoever the biggest threat is on the other team 1-through-5.”

We saw this in the regular-season series against Chicago. When Spoelstra needed a defensive stop on the final possession in that Feb. 24 matchup, he put James on Rose. People forget that on the final Bulls possession in the March 6 game, Spoelstra stuck James on Noah.

Will we see more James-on-Noah matchups this series?

"No doubt about it,” Spoelstra said. “There’s no doubt in my mind. Chicago, because of how good they are, especially defensively, and the weapons they have offensively, we will need every bit of LeBron’s versatility in this series. To be able to guard different guys, for us to be able to execute certain things offensively, to loosen up that defense, his versatility will be paramount.”

James has excelled at the power forward slot this season to the point that Spoelstra isn’t sure he’d play a healthy Udonis Haslem over him there. When asked about that hypothetical question at Friday’s practice, Spoelstra responded, “Good question. I don’t know.”

In this playoffs, James has played a quarter of his minutes at the 4, thriving in his role as Bosh’s backup. In the 129 postseason minutes in which James has played the power forward position, the Heat have outscored opponents by 20.3 points every 100 possessions. Sure, James guarded power forwards in Cleveland, but he was almost always the ball handler in those situations, rarely the player on the block.

“He is dynamic,” Spoelstra said. “For the first time in his career, we needed him to play the 4. Not the 4-1, or the 4-3 or a combination player. We said you have to be Chris Bosh. You have to do whatever Bosh did at this position. Actually, I think it sparked his interest.”

If you don’t think James has added a post game to his repertoire, you haven’t been paying attention. According to Synergy Sports, James has the sixth-highest efficiency in the post, among the 72 players with at least 100 post-ups this season. James scored 170 points on his 163 post-up plays, and his efficiency ranked higher than other famed wings on the block such as Kobe Bryant, Joe Johnson and Carmelo Anthony.

“He helped us,” Spoelstra said about James’ ability to play on the block. “We were able to be more dynamic and it’s helped add more dimensions to his game. Offensively, other teams have to make some decisions against us when we do that.”

For all of James' versatility and talent, Rose has had the upper hand in late possessions this season. The point guard's closing track record has been nothing short of remarkable this season. But if James does what he did against Boston down the stretch, it will be tough to find James' Achilles heel at this point.

For the Bulls, everything rides on Rose, and in many ways, the Heat's chances are riding on James as well. In order for the Heat to have the best shot at winning this series, James has to be effective playing the 4, defend all of the Bulls' players and come up big in crunch time. Spoelstra asks the world of James, and now the two-time MVP has no choice but to deliver it.

Because when it's all said and done, there's no greater value than a player who leads his team to the Larry O'Brien trophy.

Now checking the MVP: LeBron James

May, 13, 2011
By Henry Abbott and Kevin Arnovitz
Derrick Rose and LeBron James
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
LeBron James says Derrick Rose is quicker, so he'll rely on length and athleticism.

The No. 1 question for any team facing the Chicago Bulls is: Who will guard No. 1, Derrick Rose?

In the Eastern Conference finals, the answer for the Heat will be: A small army, including Mike Bibby, Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers and ... LeBron James.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says, "I will not be giving away an incredible secret by saying that there will be some times when LeBron will be on him."

James has no expectation of shutting out the MVP.

"He’s quicker than me," says James, who finished third to Rose in this year's MVP voting, and points out that Rose can "go around anyone in this league. Jeff Teague is one of the quickest guys we have in this league and D-Rose can get around him at times.

"I use my athleticism. I use my length to give him space. If he takes 24, 25 shots a game, he’s going to make a few. He’s going to get into the paint. He’s going to make a few there. He shoots six 3s a game, he’s going to make a couple. You just have to make it tough on him.

"Myself, D-Wade. Bibby’s going to start on him, ‘Rio. Guys are going to check him. He’ll see different bodies, different guys, different speeds, different lengths, and just try to keep him honest."

As Rose's primary defender, James makes a lot of sense for several reasons. James is correct -- he isn't the most laterally quick defender in the league. But let's say James gives Rose a step or two and drops back. Can Rose map out a route to the rim that goes above, around or through James?

What happens when Rose's speed meets James' size at the point of attack?

Keeping centers busy
All season long -- before every game against Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Deron Williams -- Erik Spoelstra has fielded questions asked how his team plans to deal with quick point guards. When you fill the name of Carlos Arroyo or Mike Bibby as your starting point guard, this tends to happen.

Spoelstra is quick to point out that, in the modern NBA, the primary defender against a speedy point guard like Rose isn't necessarily -- and certainly not exclusively -- the Heat's point guard. This is one reason why we've seen Spoelstra increasingly rely on Joel Anthony in crucial spots.

Spoelstra explains that as much as it may matter who starts the play on Rose, the Heat big man charged with protecting the rim is also, essentially, assigned to guard the slashing Rose, too. With that in mind, Heat centers looking for minutes while Rose is in the game will have to be up to the task of keeping Rose from waltzing to the bucket.

"Who can slide, who can contain, can keep the ball in front of them," says the coach, "will be a major key. ... If he gets to his launching pad, and you don’t get to him early, he’s going to finish over the top or get your bigs in foul trouble."

Also on Spoelstra's mind is the reality that when Rose attacks the paint, he's followed by big men eager for put-backs. "If it’s an absolute assault to the rim and you don’t have bodies in front of him early," says Spoelstra, "[Jaokim] Noah, [Carlos] Boozer and [Taj] Gibson are just lining up for those offensive rebounds. So you have to get to him early."

Similarly, just as Heat big men will be forced to cut off Rose before he gets close to the hoop, Spoelstra says the Heat guards, in defending the pick-and-roll, should be ready to spend plenty of time guarding Joakim Noah, and the other Bull big men setting picks.

"[Rose] doesn’t let you make it a one-on-one matchup," says Spoelstra. "Our guards and perimeters will be matched up against Noah more often than our centers, quite frankly, because when the ball gets broken down, Rose is going to draw our bigs and one of our perimeters will have to get to Noah."

"One thing you can’t do with D-Rose," says Dwyane Wade, who is also scheduled to guard the MVP, "you can’t take everything away from him. He has so many counters. You just have to play him as solid as possible and trust that you have teammates behind you that are going to help."

And now, with a jumper
The book on Rose has long been to play him like Rajon Rondo or other non-shooters: concede the jumper and play him for the drive, normally by having his defender go under the pick. The Hawks, however, changed the game in the last round, now honoring Rose's improved jumper by having defenders Jeff Teague and Joe Johnson fight over high screens and trail Rose while the big man corralled, to mixed results.

The Heat acknowledge Rose's improved stroke has changed the game. "He’s a good shooter," says James, "but you have to pick your poison. Would you rather him continue to penetrate your defense in the paint or take contested 3s? It’s the same thing with us. The days of going under LeBron and D-Wade are over too, but guys still do it. Because they’d rather keep us out on the perimeter than have us in the paint."

Spoelstra sounds more worried about 3s than long 2s: "He’s shooting it pretty well now. He’s a streaky shooter, but when he gets it going from 3, you have to be aggressive with him and meet him at the 3-point line."

Most important, though, says the coach, is to go all out, which means he will give no thought to conserving his stars -- James and Wade -- by keeping them away from Rose. "Not at this point in the playoffs, in the Eastern Conference finals," he says. "And not after what we had to do in the Boston series. On every single possession, Dwyane and LeBron had to be two-way players. We have to remain true to who we are and that’s an aggressive defensive team."

The virtues of taste in the MVP race

April, 8, 2011
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prosepctus, in his case for Dwight Howard for MVP, captures a sentiment that's been gnawing at me as the argument over MVP has become more and more contentious over the past few weeks. Those who value advanced analytics have made the empirical case against Derrick Rose, while proponents of Rose's candidacy have noted his impact in Chicago's outstanding season and an individual game that has, by any account, grown tremendously:
My greatest sadness about the MVP debate this year is that it has been reduced to stat geeks against Derrick Rose, which hasn't helped either side. Look, Rose has had a fabulous year. I enjoy watching him attack a defense as much as anyone. And it is absolutely unfair that he's taken a barrage of criticism from statistical analysts because of an MVP campaign that he's had no role in orchestrating outside of his play.

The tenor of this year's discussion about MVP has grown toxic, not just because there's a lack of unanimity like last season, but because the debate has been drawn along ideological lines.

Sports, by and large, is a constellation of arguments: Who's the Greatest of All Time? Who do you want taking the last shot? Should there be a designated hitter in baseball (apropos of nothing, both LeBron and, more vociferously, James Jones said no last week in the Heat locker room). And arguments, by their very nature, are oppositional: My conclusion makes more sense than your conclusion.

This season, the dispute over MVP has grown uglier, because it's degenerated into a dispute about methodology. We're not just impugning each other's choices, but the way we perceive the world. That, in and of itself, doesn't have to be a bad thing. An exchange of ideas generally makes the world a better place, but some of the Rose-James and Rose-Howard debates I've overheard and read in recent days aren't so much a contrast of the players' attributes as a condemnation of those doing the arguing: Do you stat geeks even watch the games and observe the results, or do you just consult your spreadsheet to draw conclusions? Meanwhile, if you listen to the extremes on the other side, you'd think Rose was putting up Arenasian numbers this season.

What are we really arguing about here? If I support LeBron James for the MVP Award, what I'm essentially saying is that Rose is a dynamic talent who just happens to be the second, third or fourth best player in the world. How insulting. Rose-over-James offers the same construction. These disagreements might be contrasts in methodology, but at their very heart, they're about taste, and taste is a very personal quality.

I've argued with friends for "Some Girls" over "Let it Bleed" and "Beggars Banquet" (somewhat unsuccessfully, but I'm a sucker for middle-late Stones), and for "Blueprint" over "The Black Album" and "Reasonable Doubt" (more successfully), but we always seem to arrive at the same place:

Artistry invites diverse tastes.

"Let it Bleed," my third favorite Stones album, is freaking phenomenal -- and so is Derrick Rose. Ranking them behind a top choice doesn't discount that affection at all.

A closer look at 'LeBron vs. D-Rose' MVP debate

February, 24, 2011
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
LeBron James
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images Sport
Derrick Rose has emerged as the favorite to snatch the MVP award away from LeBron James. Does he have a case?

LeBron James vs. Derrick Rose.

On Thursday night, the two players go head-to-head for the first time this season -- James missed the first game between the Heat and Bulls due to injury. But James and Rose have been battling all season off the court in the MVP debate, which will continue to bubble for the rest of the season. Right now, it appears the competition has boiled down to the Heat's reigning, two-time recipient and the Bulls point guard, with others like Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard lingering on the periphery.

But right now, it’s all about James and Rose. Everyone generally agrees that James is the better player of the two, but the balance of power shifts when we discuss the “V” part of the award.

Those batting for Rose’s candidacy as the MVP contend that the Bulls’ 38-17 record speaks for itself -- that the point guard has carried the Bulls with Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah out for extended periods this season.

But I don’t buy it. No matter what Juwan Howard says.

This isn’t a knock on Rose, but an endorsement for a deeper analysis. Those who stand behind the “carry” argument are ignoring the single biggest reason the Bulls are where they are: their defense – the best one in the league.

Once Tom Thibodeau, a defensive guru and longtime assistant coach, was hired to replace Vinny Del Negro as Chicago's head coach, the Bulls were expected to sharpen their defensive engagement and soar through the league ranks. But not this quickly. The Bulls allowed 105.2 points per 100 possessions last season with Del Negro at the helm, according to This year? That defensive efficiency has plummeted -- downward direction is a good thing, mind you -- 5.1 points to 100.1 points this season, the stiffest rate in the NBA.

What Thibodeau has done to revamp Chicago’s defense deserves the recognition of a Coach of the Year award but he has the Spurs’ historical run to blame if he doesn’t win it. After engineering Boston’s suffocating defense for three seasons, Thibodeau has instantly stamped his smothering pick-and-roll philosophies onto his new roster. In one offseason, the Bulls have improved from the 15th most effective pick-and-roll defense in 2009-10 to fifth place under Thibodeau -- just a hair behind Boston -- according to Synergy video data. Thibodeau doesn’t have Kevin Garnett to swarm the ball handler, nor does he have someone the size of Yao Ming (whom Thibodeau coached in Houston) to absorb the rotations underneath. For much of the season, Thibodeau has somehow managed to stifle opponents using the undersized Taj Gibson (who, granted, has developed into a skilled defender) and the overweight Kurt Thomas.

Of course, it’s unfair to suggest that Rose hasn’t played a role in the team’s defensive turnaround. But it’s equally unreasonable to assign much credit to a player who defends primarily 20 feet away from the basket. The 22-year-old has seen an uptick in his steals this season while exhibiting more discipline at a young age than many projected. But Thibodeau’s unforgiving system is predicated on airtight defensive rotations underneath the game’s most utilized attack, the pick-and-roll.

Oddly enough, what's not helping Rose's MVP case is his plus-minus numbers. And implicitly, this is where most Rose supporters state their case. When his advocates ask, "Where would the Bulls be without Rose?" the question is meant to be a rhetorical one. The obvious implication is that a Rose-less Bulls squad would instantly become a basement dweller. But rather than blindly accept it, we can actually see how the Bulls have managed without him on the court. And how have they fared with Rose benched? By beating opponents by 51 points on the season, or an average of 4.9 points every 100 possessions. Why? Whether Rose is in the game or not, Thibodeau’s game-changing defense remains.

Now, Rose is having a remarkable season and, at such a young age, he's undoubtedly one of the brightest stars in the game. With an average of 25.0 points and 8.2 assists, Rose has vaulted himself into the game’s elite. He’s added a 3-point game to his arsenal which has helped to curb his tumbling field goal percentage on 2-point shots.

But in terms of value, Thibodeau’s masterful system has had more of an influence on the Bulls’ record than Rose’s strong play. Claiming that Rose has single-handedly carried his team to its record is a barroom shortcut, conveniently sliding by the Bulls’ defense that has routinely pummeled opponents this season. And let’s not forget that Noah and Boozer have played more than 2,000 minutes this season.

And then there’s LeBron’s résumé. The two-time MVP has done nothing this season to suggest he isn’t the same unstoppable force who earned the award each of the past two seasons. Despite having to share the rock with two other ball-hungry stars, James is averaging 26.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists, translating to a league-best 26.6 player efficiency rating. In the box score, he has no parallel.

Defensively, he’s asked to play five positions for the Heat, locking down point guards as well as power forwards on a nightly basis. He’s a monster on both ends of the court, which is why, despite having Wade and Bosh to hold down the fort when he’s out of the game, the Heat have barely outscored opponents (1,311 to 1,302) with James sitting this season. (Remember the Bulls’ track record without Rose?) But with James on the court, the Heat beat their opponents by 11.3 points every 100 possessions, an on court/off court swing of more than 10 points on average.

Whether you speak in anecdotes or analytics, James is the best player in the game today. And judging from the Heat’s near mediocrity without him, he’s demonstrated his incredible value in that respect as well. As one league GM plainly said to me this season, “LeBron is the MVP. Every year.”

And on Thursday night, for the first time all season, James will get his opportunity to showcase his worth against Rose and the Bulls.

Heat-Bulls matchup offers intrigue

February, 23, 2011
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
Dwyane Wade
AP Photo/Charles Cherney
Heat vs. Bulls features a bunch of compelling stories, including a battle between Wade and Rose, two Chicago natives.

MIAMI -- If you want to know particulars about the Chicago Bulls, just ask LeBron James. He can give you the vitals right off the top of his head.

“Even with Joakim Noah out for the last 30 games, they went 22-8 in the span,” James said as if he were reading the line right off the Bulls’ daily media notes.

“Along with us and Boston, we all rank 1, 2 and 3 in the defensive categories,” James said accurately, referring to points allowed, defensive field goal percentage and rebounding differential, among others metrics where the Bulls rank near the top.

James has clearly been studying the Miami Heat's Thursday night opponent in what is once again shaping into a serious Eastern Conference test for the Heat. Miami hasn’t passed many of these so far. They are 0-3 against the Boston Celtics and 0-1 against the Bulls. They are 2-1 against the Orlando Magic and have split a pair of games with the Atlanta Hawks in Miami.

It was less than two weeks ago that the Heat faced this same sort of crucible in Boston, and they delivered their worst performance in weeks in a loss to the Celtics. It was a defeat that cost them what could be a valuable tiebreaker in the Eastern Conference standings.

Losing that game to their major rivals was more than just about the standings, though, it was a psychological blow that clearly affected the team for two days.

The stakes are high again on Thursday. The Bulls, who are right on the Heat’s tail in the standings, can clinch the tiebreaker with a victory. Chicago will also be at full strength with Noah back and expected to play. So will the Heat, who lost last month in Chicago when James was out and Chris Bosh couldn’t play in the fourth quarter with an ankle injury.

But deeper than the impact on the standings will be the effect of the game on the ego. The Bulls, who like to play rough, especially with big men Noah and Carlos Boozer, will want to send a message.

The Heat have a fantastic record over the past three months, but don’t have a signature win in their own conference yet. Another loss, especially with their big three healthy, will be tough to swallow.

“It’s the second half of the season so every has [the playoffs] in their minds now,” Bosh said. “We don’t want to give anyone confidence. We want to show them that we can go in there and be a handful.

The Chicago-Miami matchup is simply intriguing for several reasons, not the least of which is, right now, it projects to be a second-round playoff series.

The Bulls are strongest at the Heat’s weakest positions, point guard and center. Dealing with Derrick Rose and Noah will be a challenge for Miami for one night or over a seven-game series. The Bulls are also a physical team with their big men, not a strong suit of the Heat, who had been starting a couple of finesse big men, Bosh and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Erik Spoelstra changed his starting lineup on Tuesday, inserting the more rugged Erick Dampier at center, in part, because of this very reason.

“Booz is an undersized 4, [Bosh] has him in height and Boozer has [Bosh] in weight,” James said, breaking down the big-man matchups. “With [Dampier] and Joakim, Damp is a bit stronger and Joakim is more agile. It should be interesting, we’ll have to be on our A game as far as rebounding.”

Second, the Heat are a challenge to the Bulls’ style of defense. Chicago has good perimeter defenders, especially the underrated Ronnie Brewer. But historically, James has eviscerated his opposite number on the Bulls, Luol Deng. And the combination of Wade and James on the attack will strongly test the Bulls’ goal, which is to prevent dribble penetration and force lower percentage outside shots.

Third, there’s the non-basketball factors that add spice to the budding rivalry. Both James and Wade considered signing with the Bulls last summer but decided to pass. At the time, Rose was not aggressive in recruiting them. Also, Chicago is Wade’s hometown, and he is now getting booed there, while Rose, another hometown star, takes up residence as the most popular Bull since Michael Jordan.

“I’ve had some games where I’ve struggled there,” Wade said. “I really wanted that game [last time in Chicago] and there’s not many games that I really come in and say that.”

It is probably going to be the same this time around with the stakes naturally higher. The Heat, who have been a targeted team all season, aren’t dodging that reality. They know this is one of the games that the result will be magnified much more than just a regular-season game.

“I think it’s a huge test,” James said. “We look forward to the challenge.”