LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat shoots over Carlos Boozer #5 of the Chicago Bulls. The Heat and Bulls play at United Center in Chicago on April 12, 2012. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
The Chicago Bulls can open up an insurmountable gap between them and the Miami Heat for first place in the East if they win on Thursday night.
The Miami Heat, if they are like most basketball teams, are probably interested in securing home court advantage throughout the playoffs. They're currently three games back of the first-place Chicago Bulls with 10 games remaining in the season, so Thursday night's game (8 p.m. ET, TNT) is a virtual must-win for the Heat as far as reaching their regular season aspirations go.
Derrick Rose's health - or lack thereof - will have a serious impact on this game, as it has on nearly every Bulls game this season ... except for the weird ones where John Lucas was unconscious. One of those weird games was the last meeting between these two teams, in which Lucas scored 24 points in a 106-102 Bulls win. Rose is a game-time decision with an ankle injury.
The last time these two teams met in a game that Rose was able to participate in was on January 29, when the Heat won 97-93. Rose had a fantastic game with 34 points, six rebounds and six assists, but failed to capitalize on golden opportunities to extend the game late. He missed two free throws while his team was down by just one point with 22 seconds remaining, then missed a 14-foot jumper in the dying seconds that would have sent the game into overtime.
Rose tweaked his sprained ankle two games ago in an overtime loss to the New York Knicks and sat out his team's last game, also against the Knicks. His team put in a much better performance in that game, redeeming themselves with a regulation win.
Following a run of five straight games where they failed to score 100 points -- a stretch in which they went 3-2 -- the Heat finally scored 107 points in their last game against the Boston Celtics. Unfortunately for them, that wasn't nearly enough to capture a win as they put in a very poor defensive performance. Kevin Garnett was a ridiculous 11-14 from the field in Boston's 115-107 win, the Celtics' second victory over the Heat in 10 days.
It goes without saying that the Heat are going to need a better defensive performance on Thursday night at the United Center to defeat the Bulls, but they're also going to need a better offensive performance from Dwyane Wade, who has left LeBron James to carry the team offensively in recent games. James has led the Heat in scoring in the last six consecutive games, and Wade hasn't led all scorers in a game since the Heat's March 23 win over the Detroit Pistons. Wade is still shooting a fantastic 50 percent from the floor on the season, but he's dropped off slightly since the All-Star break.
Based on the Eastern Conference Finals series between these two teams last season, in which the Heat clinched the series in Game 5 at the United Center on the back of a spectacular defensive performance by James, they might not need home-court advantage to be favorites to advance out of the East. However, they were 28-13 on the road in the regular season last year.
This season, the Heat are 16-12 on the road heading into this game. They're a much better team at home this year, as opposed to last year when there wasn't a significant difference between their home and road records. Eliminating the possibility of a Game 7 in Chicago come playoff time gives them a much easier road to the NBA Finals.