The Chicago Bulls' odds of beating the Miami Heat in the second round are really, really long. Joakim Noah is playing on one foot. Luol Deng is trying to beat freaking meningitis and spinal fluid leakage. Derrick Rose is out. This is just not going to happen. The Bulls shouldn't have beaten the Brooklyn Nets, really. That they did is a credit to Noah, Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli, a sentence I thought I'd never write.
So the question becomes what the Bulls can do to test the Heat, to find holes in their armor, to reveal what weakness could eventually fell them. That's where Noah comes in. Further, the Heat can test their own current weakness -- Dwyane Wade playing pretty poorly in the first round -- to see if there's a reason to panic.
Noah was the East's best center this season. He plays both ends with great skill and impossible-to-match energy. His rise is the stuff of smiles and fist pumps. But for all of his gifts, he's not much of a scorer. He traditionally scores about 12 points per 36 minutes with average efficiency. He passes really well and has a small turnover problem, and he hits the offensive glass exceptionally well.
The passing and offensive rebounding is what will test Miami. The Heat famously have trouble with good centers; Roy Hibbert gave them fits a year ago. Guess what? Hibbert potentially looms in the conference finals. If Miami doesn't draw him, the Heat will get Tyson Chandler, a center that gave Miami fits in the 2011 NBA Finals. A one-legged Noah is a nice warm-up for Chris Bosh, LeBron James and the Miami bench crew. Or, put more bluntly: if Miami can't stop Noah, I'll be mighty skeptical of their chances of stopping Hibbert or Chandler (who is himself hobbled). That doesn't mean that Miami won't make the NBA Finals if Noah has a good series -- the Heat did beat Indiana last year despite Hibbert's play. But it makes for a more competitive series. I'd surmise that Miami would prefer to keep any series with Indiana or New York (or Chicago, for that matter) as uncompetitive as possible.
Way of Wade
There's no way around it: Dwyane Wade was a disaster in the first round. He played the first three games, averaging 14-7-6 while shooting ... 37 percent. And this was against the Bucks. He seems to have one bad series in each postseason since LeBron arrived, so maybe he's just getting it out of the way early. But what makes Miami so very special is that they don't just have LeBron and Bosh -- that just makes for a slightly upgraded 2009 Cavaliers team. It's Wade that pushes them over the top.
Remember that Wade is one of the generation's top players with an impeccable postseason record pre-Decision. He's also exited his prime at age 31. So we can't rule out that we've seen the best of him -- in fact, we probably have seen the best of him. How good can he be in the next two rounds while fighting off injury? How he plays against Jimmy Butler and Belinelli could suggest how he'll play against Lance Stephenson and Paul George or Jason Kidd and J.R. Smith.
Of course, if Deng comes back strong for Game 2 and beyond or Rose makes a stunning decision to play, the complexion of the series changes and it becomes more a test than a quiz for Miami. But as of right now, I feel totally comfortable picking Miami in four and calling it a warm-up for the defending champs.
I really hope the Bulls are fully healthy in the next postseason. I want to see what Rose can do with this Noah against the top teams in the NBA. The East could really use another great team, and Chicago could end up at the very top.