A mid-April matchup between the Eastern Conference’s top two teams is must-see TV. At least it is supposed to be. This is supposed to be the point where two elite teams are rounding into form.
Thursday’s game between the Bulls and the Heat in Chicago does not have the pizzaz it probably should have. Because, frankly, the East’s only two teams that have clinched a Playoff spot at this point are not playing their best basketball with the Playoffs pretty clearly in sight. An Eastern Conference Finals preview this game will not be.
Both Chicago and Miami have a host of problems to address before that expected clash in May.
Derrick Rose, who has missed substantial time this season and has actually missed the most games by a former MVP since Bill Walton lost his entire 1978-79 season, is still going to be a gametime decision as his bothersome ankle won’t heal itself enough to allow him to play. We last saw Rose on Sunday against the Knicks, but he had limited effectiveness in scoring 29 points on 8-for-26 shooting. Not to mention, Rose rolled his ankle late in that game and was forced to sit out Tuesday’s rematch.
While Chicago has missed its biggest superstar, the team has done a good job carrying on. C.J. Watson and John Lucas III have done a good job stepping into the point guard role and handling the pressure at that position. Luol Deng has stepped up too, averaging 17.0 points per game and shooting 40.9 percent in the 23 games Rose has missed. Deng is averaging 15.7 points per game on 41.4 percent shooting.
Undoubtedly, Deng benefits from having Rose in the lineup although he stays pretty even.
Players like Carlos Boozer have taken turns increasing their production when needed too. Even Richard Hamilton, just back from his own spat of injuries, has contributed in big moments too. He had 16 of his 20 points in the third quarter in Tuesday’s win over New York in Chicago. Hamilton has played just 20 games this year though, leaving Chicago wanting more.
So while the Bulls continue to win and lead the Eastern Conference, the distinct feeling is that this team has not played its best basketball yet. And we may not see that best basketball unless the team can return to health and get the ball rolling once the postseason comes around.
Rose has missed 13 of the last 14 games since March 14. He looked rusty in that one game he came back for last Sunday. And nobody really knows when Rose will be able to come back for consistent time on the floor so he can get back to an MVP level, which is what the Bulls will really need to go deep in the Playoffs.
The question is will that be enough time for Chicago to get to the level it knows it needs to reach to take down Miami, the team that eliminated Chicago in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals in five games?
The Heat themselves have to be asking that question of themselves. Do they have the time to start rounding themselves into the shape.
Unlike Chicago, Miami has not had the same rampant injury issues. Dwyane Wade has missed some time recently, sure, but Miami’s star players have largely been on the floor together for most of the season.
Yet, the Heat are 5-5 in their last 10 games. This hardly looks like a championship team at the moment. Miami players know that the team will be all right once the postseason comes around. They assure the media (and anyone who will listen) that they will round into form when the time comes. That is what most Playoff and Finals-caliber teams will say when they reach this mid-April doldrum.
Still, in the last 10 games against teams currently in the Playoffs, the Heat are 5-5 as well with two losses to the hard-charging Celtics.
This team seems in a much different place than it was when it was storming through the entire league. Undoubtedly, Miami is going to have to get its level of play up to win that first championships with LeBron James in tow.
And that path still goes through Chicago.
The Heat and the Bulls have split the previous two matchups and still have one more game to play after tonight’s meeting. It is hard to find anything to learn in those previous two matchups, and likely we will not learn much about this matchup tonight.
In a 97-93 Miami win in late January, Derrick Rose had 34 points on 11-for-28 shooting but could not outduel LeBron James’ 35 points. Neither team shot particularly well, but this seemed to approximate what we will see in the Playoffs if both teams are clicking on all cylinders.
Without Rose, the Bulls came back to take a 106-102 victory at United Center in mid-March. James and Wade combined for 71 of Miami’s 102 points as no one else could get anything going. Speedy point guard John Lucas III had 24 off the bench to lead a balanced Bulls effort. This seemed more like the lighting in a bottle game that the Celtics used to top the Heat earlier this week.
The question, of course, is can Chicago capture that lightning again without Rose or with a hampered Rose tonight? Can they do it over the course of a seven-game series in May?
We probably will not learn the answer to that far-reaching question tonight. Tonight is just going to be a good game between the East’s top two teams. Even if it does not really look like it. The real battle will have to wait until May. We may not get our Eastern Conference Finals preview tonight.