Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The View From Section 122

Actually, the view from Row 14, Section 122 at the United Center last night was largely of the top of Jesse Jackson's head. The high profile politician, activist, etc., was seated in the seat right in front of me. He good naturedly kibitzed with neighbors, shared a tub of popcorn, and cheered on the Bulls. Overall, he seemed to enjoy the game. But then again, how could he not? The game was highly enjoyable for just about everyone in the UC. Maybe not so much for the Heat, or for the Heat fan in my row who, even as the Heat trailed by double digits, kept prattling on about how Dwayne Wade was going to beat the Bulls single handedly even though he was playing with only one arm and one leg.

Let's talk about Wade for a second. The man is a warrior. The official brother of the Ron Karkovice Fan Club last night questioned why the Heat would even allow Wade to play this post-season. I think the situation is this: Shaq doesn't have much time left, and when he retires, the Heat become the 2006-07 Lakers. In other words, the Heat's window is now, and when Shaq leaves, the team may be locked into a half-decade of mediocrity. Wade has to suck it up now, no matter how banged up he is, because he's looking at a dry spell in terms of championship calibre teammates starting very soon. And Wade is banged up. Everything he does, he does tentatively. He can't fight through picks, so he can't guard Kirk Hinrich or Ben Gordon. Relegated to guarding Luol Deng, he's a defensive liability because of his size. He can't attack the rim. Watch his break away dunk last night. There was no explosion, and he finished with one wing pulled tightly to his body. Even passing the ball, he's out of synch because a crisp, two-handed chest pass (you know, fundamentals) is not an option. It's sad, and national experts understated the importance of Wade's injuries when they universally picked the Heat in this series.

That's especially true because Shaq, as good as he is, is no longer the absolutely unstoppable, put his team on his shoulders and carry them, force that he once was. He is still the strongest man in basketball. If he gets good position, he is nearly impossible to contain. But his lateral mobility, an underrated strength in his prime, is fading fast. Defensively, penetrating guards don't need to worry about him unless they take the ball right into his chest. Offensively, if he kicks it out to re-post, a wily defender like Ben Wallace can often beat him to his spot and take away the angle on the entry pass. He gets everywhere he's going a step slower than he used to, and that's why he's getting in foul trouble more often.

As for the Bulls, their two best players were the two best players on the floor last night. Ben Gordon had nine first-quarter points as the Bulls built a 10 point lead after one period. He finished with 27 points, and the Bulls outscored Miami by 18 while he was on the floor. But the player of the game was Luol Deng. Deng had a slow first half, but he scored 20 points in the second half, most of them during a 15-2 fourth quarter run that put the game away. Deng was an astonishing +21 on the night.

One other player deserves special mention for the Bulls. The not-so-secret x-factor in this series so far has been Bulls' rookie Thabo Sefolosha. He played only 12 minutes last night, but had a disproportionate effect on the game. At one point I mentioned to my brother that Sefolosha had seemed very involved in the game for a man who, at the time, had 2 points, no assists and no rebounds. The raw numbers got better -- nine points on four of five shooting -- but still don't capture his full impact. Somehow, despite the Bulls winning the game by 18 points, every Bulls' reserve had a negative +/- except for Sefolosha. Thabo was +12 in only 12 minutes. And, it's no coincidence. His harassing defense, and surprisingly steadying hand on offense made the Bulls a better team when he was on the floor.

My brother insisted at dinner last night that he expected the Heat to win the series, and wouldn't be surprised if they won last night. Only one quarter into last night's game he turned to me and said, "You're right, the Bulls are just the better team." There's no question about it. Now, anything can happen in a short series. The Bulls blew a 2-0 lead two years ago to the Wizards. But this much I know for sure: the Bulls are just the better team.


Blogger Jake said...

Game 2 was in many ways identical to Game 1, except that the Bulls were killer from behind the arc, and Antoine Walker couldn't find his stroke.

Which team do you think the off-days favor more? I would say the Heat, because of their age, but then again much of the Bulls' game is predicated on energy. So I dunno.

I do, however, expect the Heat to come out with a lot of energy on Friday. Whether the Bulls can weather than initial storm will, in my opinion, largely dictate the outcome of the game. Then again, it could always just come down to their jumpshooting: when they hits their shots, they're more or less unbeatable; when they don't, they rarely win.

4:28 PM  

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