Czar’s Playoff Preview: Bulls vs. Heat Game 4

The Miami Heat protected their turf in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Chris Bosh scored 34 points to lead his team past Chicago 96-85. The Bulls haven’t suffered consecutive losses since early February. They must win Game 4 on the road tonight in order to reclaim home court advantage and salvage a legitimate shot at advancing to the NBA Championship.

It will be interesting to see whether Chicago changes up its defense in order to shut down Bosh and prevent him from having another huge game. However, in doing so they risk the possibility of allowing LeBron James and/or Dwyane Wade to put up big numbers. Head Coach Tom Thibodeau will have to decide whether to implement a new strategy or to play the same way in order to contain James and Wade (who were held to 22 and 17 points respectively) while doing a better individual job on Bosh.

On the offensive end of the court, Chicago needs to figure out a way to score more points against Miami’s outstanding defense. Derrick Rose and Carlos Boozer both produced in the last game, combining for 46 total. But a third starter needs to step up and give the Bulls a boost. Ball movement and bench productivity will also be critical to their success.

The Heat see the opportunity in front of them to end the Eastern Conference Finals in five games and will be anxious to seize the pivotal Game 4 in front of their enthusiastic fans. This is a veteran Miami team that will try to take advantage of the younger Chicago squad’s relative lack of experience in order to take control of their series like Dallas was able to do last night against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Czar’s Playoff Prevew: Thunder vs. Mavericks Game 4

The Oklahoma City Thunder stole Game 2 in Dallas only to give home court advantage right back to the Mavericks in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. I’m wondering if this young Thunder team is starting to collapse not only from the physical fatigue, but also the mental exhaustion of fighting through so many playoff games in a row.

In order for OKC to beat this experienced Dallas squad in Game 4 they must get all cylinders firing at once. Both All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook need to have a big night. And just as the reinforcements came through in Game 2, sixth man James Harden must deliver off the bench in conjunction with at least one of their other guys.

Dallas understands they have a huge opportunity to close out this series in five and get some rest while the Heat and Bulls battle back East. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Mavs’ veteran mentality and all their years of playoff experience pay off in a great performance tonight that allows them to return home with a 3-1 lead in this series.

Czar’s Playoff Preview: Bulls vs. Heat Game 3

The six-time champion Chicago Bulls, owners of the NBA’s #1 overall seed in these 2011 Playoffs, come to South Florida tonight to take on the Miami Heat, the East’s number two seed and the league’s most discussed, dissected and debated team this season, in the pivotal Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

After absorbing a 21-point trouncing at the hands of MVP PG Derrick Rose and teammates in Game 1, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and fellow ‘Heatles’ bounced back in Game 2 on Wednesday night at The United Center and evened the ECF at a game apiece. Now the simultaneously adored and vilified Miami squad has home court advantage in the series. With Games 3 and 4 in Miami, Coach Erik Spoelstra and team president Pat Riley both must feel good the position their team is in given that the Heat were 30-11 at the American Airlines Arena in the regular season and are undefeated on Biscayne Boulevard so far this postseason.

This series has been a physical, bloody (literally) and aggressive battle thus far, with team rebounding playing a monstrous factor. Of the 30 teams in the world’s best basketball league, the Bulls ranked first in defensive field goal percentage at .430, and the Heat were second at .434. Interestingly, Miami shot exactly 32 for 68 from the
field in both Games 1 and 2, a 47.1% clip. The key difference for the Heat was that in their Game 2 road-victory they outrebounded Chicago 45-41 and upped their defensive rotations and intensity. In the opening game they got destroyed on the backboards, 45-33, allowing the Bulls to grab 19 offensive boards. Also, in Game 2 Chicago made only three 3-pointers compared to the ten they connected on from 23’ 9” in the first game.

The Bulls have the deeper more impactful bench, while the Heat have the best 1-2-3 punch in the league with their summer 2010-formed Sunshine State Big 3 of All-NBA First Teamer King James, All-NBA Second Teamer Wade and 6X All-Star PF Chris Bosh. In the opening two Illinois-based contests, 2011 Coach of The Year Tom Thibodeau counted on his non-starters for an average of 79 minutes per game as a group.  In comparison Miami, with so much skill and firepower in their first five, only averaged 61.5 bench minutes per game, with Coach Spoelstra leaning especially heavily on his stars in Game 2, playing his 6 through 11 only a combined 55 minutes.

Both sides can be optimistic about their chances in tonight’s third 94-foot, 48-minute rumble. The Heat are fantastic at home and have had almost four full days to rest their minute-weary stars. But the Red & Black have proven to be remarkably resilient after a loss. The bounce-back Bulls haven’t suffered consecutive defeats since the first week of February. Tune in to find out which title contender will take control of this series when the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat meet for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals at 8:30 PM ET on TNT.

On the Road with Mike

Dick Stockton and I got a chance to catch up with John Calipari at the United Center on the night Commissioner David Stern presented Coach Calipari’s former player Derrick Rose with the NBA’s Most Valuable Player trophy. Coach Calipari flew to Chicago to be there for the MVP Trophy Pre-Game Ceremony held prior to Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Coach Calipari’s attendance demonstrates the great bond he’s developed with his star player from Memphis, as well as the high regard he has for Derrick and his family. He knows how much it meant to everyone for Derrick to earn that award.

Czar’s Playoff Preview: Thunder vs. Mavericks Game 2

The Heat got one back in Chicago last night, and the Thunder are hoping to do the same tonight in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. Many thought the Mavs would come out rusty in Game 1 after such a long layover following their 4-game Lakers sweep. The Mavs took a quarter to play their way back into a rhythm and then proceeded to dispel those fears and demonstrate why they’re the No. 1 shooting team in the playoffs so far. Down 7 at the end of the first 12 minutes, the Mavs put up 35, 35 and 31 on the way to their seventh straight playoff win (121-112).

Although the NBA’s leading scorer Kevin Durant did his thing and put up 40, his impressive performance was overshadowed by future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki, who had a simply awesome game. Dirk erupted for 48 points and perfection at the line, draining 24 of 24 to set the NBA record for most consecutive free throws without a miss. Whatever you want to call him (The German Shepherd? The White Mamba? Ghost Face Drilla?), it’s clear that Dirk is on a mission to erase the Finals of 2006. Fortunately he doesn’t have to do it alone. Dallas also got two stellar performances off the bench from Jason Terry and J.J. Barea, who combined for 45 points. Terry (the only other player remaining from the 2006 roster) has had three tremendous games back-to-back. And the crafty, quick Barea put on another pick and roll clinic to come up with a career playoff high 21 points.

Though the Mavs played lights out, the Thunder kept coming back and Durant kept making tough shots to keep his team within striking distance in the fourth. KD needs to get more support from Westbrook and the other starters as well as the bench (who played very well in their seven-game series against the Memphis Grizzlies) if the Thunder are going to outscore this loaded Mavericks team. More importantly, the Thunder need to tighten up on defense and find an answer for Dirk because whatever they did in Game 1 wasn’t good enough. OKC gave up 121 points and allowed the Mavericks to shoot over 53% from the floor. It will be interesting to see what adjustments Coach Scott Brooks makes to their defensive schemes. We’ll probably see them double team Nowitzki more to try and get the ball out of his hands and force other guys like Jason Kidd and DeShawn Stevenson to take shots.

OKC will try to tie up the series and steal home court advantage when the Thunder and Mavericks get it on again at 9:00 PM ET on ESPN.