The Chicago Bulls shocked the NBA last night by beating the Miami Heat 93-86 in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series. This was astonishing on several levels. For one, the Bulls went 45-37 during the regular season to the Heat’s 66-16; matchups like that are usually recipes for sweeps. For another the Bulls came into the game missing two of their starting players, point guard Kirk Hinrich and forward Luol Deng, both out with injuries. Deng’s absence was supposed to especially devastating since his an elite defender who does well in his games against Miami’s biggest star, four time MVP LeBron James. Lastly the game was on Miami’s home floor, American Airlines Arena, where the Heat had lost only four times in 43 games this season.
Rust was the quick and ubiquitous answer. Miami dispatched their first round opponent, the Milwaukee Bucks, in a four game sweep that ended Sunday April 28. Thus they hadn’t played in a week. By contrast the Bulls battled the Brooklyn Nets in a grueling seven game series that ended Saturday night. Indeed the Heat missed some open shots in the early going and scored only 15 points in the first quarter. But this explanation may be a tad pat.
For instance, by the fourth quarter, a time when you’d figure the Heat would have shaken off the rust, they were torched by the Bulls, who are not a good offensive team even with everyone healthy, for 35 points.
What if it’s not rust? The Bulls and Heat have played each other five times this season and the Bulls have won three times. In each Bulls victory they out rebounded the Heat by a double digit margin. Unlike rust, which is temporary, there are factors to suggest that this is a repeatable advantage that the Bulls have over the Heat. Miami usually plays only one man 6’9″ or taller, center Chris Bosh, while the Bulls play two, center Joakim Noah and either of their power forwards Carlos Boozer or Taj Gibson. The Bulls were a very good rebounding team finishing fifth in Offensive Rebound percentage and 13th in Defensive Rebound percentage. Miami by contrast finished 27th and 24th. The difference on the boards means that the Bulls are good at holding Miami to one shot and superb at getting additional chances for themselves on offense.
The implicit assumption from the “rust” commentary is that Miami will get its game legs under them and romp. Maybe not. Maybe this is a bad matchup for the Heat and instead, we’re in for a competitive series.