2011 NBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference Finals Important Observations and Bold Predictions

*Opening note on the NBA Draft lottery, which took place last night: I think it’s funny that the lottery gathers together more or less the 14 teams that lost the most during the last season and puts them all in a contest in which only one team can win. Last night, the team with the best chance to win the draft lottery actually won, which will happen loosely 25% of the time. The other three times out of four, the team that lost the most in the regular season just loses some more. You get the idea, it’s ironic that the 14 teams that are the biggest losers all get together in the offseason to lose some more.

Eastern Conference Finals Game 1 Important Observations:

Bulls For all the MVP-watching that has gone on this postseason, people forgot that the Bulls have some amazing individual defenders.

It's kind of a surprise, but defense is actually half of a game of basketball and Luol Deng is really good at it.

I’m looking particularly at Luol Deng here, but just behind him are Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and even Keith Bogans/Ronnie Brewer. Sure Derrick Rose is great on offense, and probably better than average on defense, although I’m sure we can all agree that Mike Bibby isn’t the acid test for that. Deng flat out beat LeBron 21-15 in Game 1, which says more about his defensive ability than his offensive ability, but speaks figurative volumes about both. Deng’s defense, particularly in the third quarter, is what allowed the Bulls to pull away in Game 1.

Noah and Gibson didn’t exactly shut down their man Chris Bosh, but it’s pretty clear that the Bulls defense for Game 1 was designed to limit the driving opportunities more than clamp down on the post-up game. In that respect, they were outstanding. Bosh got his, but everyone who tried to drive in was met by a wall of Big Ugly Noah and/or Gibson. This is probably the only sustainable way to beat the Heat, and I don’t think there are many teams that have the personnel to execute this type of plan. It takes the right types of bigs and also takes wing defenders who can guard players as dynamic as Wade and James without needing help. Any way you look at it, the story of Game 1 was the Bulls individual defensive stars.

Heat — When the Heat ship starts sinking, it’s every man for himself.

If you look close enough, you can see that Dwyane Wade signed this poster for his song.

Watching this team slip away from contention in the second half made one thing clear: there are at least two players on the Heat who are playing for both the Heat and their own personal brand. Things work out great for them when the team is winning and things on the court are going well, which is a large percentage of the time. But when things start to slip away, the metaphorical ship starts sinking, there are two players who make sure they get in the lifeboat before the women and children.

Here’s what I mean (please note that this observation resulted from my interpretation of the game action, not stats or how you interpreted what happened): When the Heat started to fall behind in the third quarter, things got worse because Wade and James started playing one-man isolation games to protect their own stat lines. Maybe you don’t believe that players care about what their stats are, but I think they do and I think players also know that at the end of a loss, someone has to take the blame. I couldn’t watch these two without thinking that in their minds, the top priority was making sure they got theirs rather than getting the team back in the game. Too much standing around off the ball. Too much no-pass or one-pas possessions. Too many bad shots taken instead of passing. In the third quarter, when everyone could see the game slipping away, there were five shots taken by players not named Dwyane and LeBron. That’s not a lot. Five shots all but two players. Let that sink in. Bosh was 2 for 2, even though he was the only player in any sort of scoring rhythm. James Jones was 1-2 from three, and Bibby missed his one shot. That’s not evidence that the rest of the team sucks, it’s evidence that two guys on the team are limiting their teammates opportunities for the benefit of their own personal stat lines.

Eastern Conference Finals Bold Predictions:

Bulls
1. Taj Gibson goes for 18 and outscores Carlos Boozer tonight.
2. Derrick Rose has an assist:turnover ratio below 1 in Game 2.

Heat
1. Bosh doesn’t shoot 18 shots in a game (not counting overtime) for the rest of the playoffs.
2. Wade and James combine for 45 shot attempts in Game 2.

*Bonus bold prediction: ESPN’s coverage of the draft this year, in particular the Cavs’ top overall pick, will mention LeBron James, who is not in the draft, more than any actual player who is eligible to be selected.

email