Would it be indelicate, Grinch-ish and flat-out un-Chicagoan to say the Bulls have no chance in hell of beating the Heat in a best-of-seven playoff series?
It probably would be.
So let’s just say the Bulls have an awful lot of work to do if they want to get to the NBA Finals. And let’s just say some divine intervention wouldn’t hurt. I know a guy who knows a guy who knows Tim Tebow, who knows The Guy.
For those of you who are sharpening your pitchforks and lighting your torches in response to those first three paragraphs, all I can say is: Have you been watching the games? The Heat has been putting opponents through a wood chipper this season. The Bulls, hard workers through and through, have been carving by hand.
It’s a little like last season. The Bulls have put in maximum effort to get where they’re at now. It’s a pleasure to watch them work so well together as a team. The Heat, while also working hard, makes it look easy most of the time.
The teams’ records were nearly identical going into this weekend, and you could find all sorts of statistical similarities between them. But there’s one fact that can’t be avoided:
The Bulls have Derrick Rose. The Heat has LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Ability, not likability
In other words, not much has changed from last season. The Bulls have yet to benefit from the arrival of Rip Hamilton because of his nagging injuries. He’s just getting back now, but there’s no guarantee he’s going to be the player he’s supposed to be. The Heat, meanwhile, looks much more together than it did last season, when it beat the Bulls 4-1 in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Bulls needed every bit of energy to beat the Spurs by seven points last week in San Antonio, and the victory was seen as a big step in their journey toward championship-caliber. The Heat spanked the Spurs by 22 at home in January.
If this were a vote on which is the more likable team, the Bulls would sweep. I’ll take Rose’s stoicism over LeBron’s dance fever at the NBA All-Star Game any day.
But it’s not a likability vote; it’s an ability vote.
At this point, the Bulls have only one player you’d want with the ball late in a game: Rose. Hamilton’s ability in those situations is somewhere between a memory and a rumor right now. The Heat, meanwhile, has James and Wade. Chris Bosh isn’t a bad third option.
I got a bit ahead of myself after the conference finals last season when I wrote James was Michael Jordan’s equal in talent and – can I have these two words back? – killer instinct. LeBron showed up with a bad case of tentativeness against the Mavericks in the NBA Finals. The killer instinct, if it’s there, apparently needs to be coaxed out of him at times. But James is going to win multiple NBA titles with the team he has now. That’s not hype or even opinion. If you have two working eyeballs, it’s a self-evident truth.
What can the Bulls do to reverse what looks like the Heat’s protracted dominance in the East? Getting Hamilton completely healthy would help. Getting the 34-year-old to be the player he was four years ago would be even better.
Beyond that, though, the Bulls have matchup problems with the Heat that playoff adrenaline won’t solve. Luol Deng can guard James as well as James can be guarded, but who handles Wade?
Carlos Boozer might be the Bulls’ second- or third-best offensive option, but he’s normally on the bench when the game is on the line because of his defensive shortcomings. If the Bulls need a bucket, Rose likely is going to have to get it. What, really, has changed from last season?
I love this Bulls team, love the way it approaches each game as though it were life or death, love the way the players want to win.
But we deal in truth here, and the truth is that talent almost always wins in a seven-game series. It didn’t in the Finals last season, when James treated the biggest moments as though they were a communicable disease. As much as many of us might want to see him stumble repeatedly after the nausea-inducing ostentatiousness of ‘‘The Decision,” it’s hard to see that happening consistently.
The Bulls are deeper. The Heat is more talented. Which would you rather be?