Eastern Conference Finals is a Chess Match

With the top two teams in the Eastern Conference battling it out this week for a shot at the NBA title, it has become very clear that this series will ultimately come down to coaching. It is hard to dismiss the flash and the thrill of star players and MVPs in a series that includes guys like Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and other explosive players. However, with the series tied at 1-1, both coaches have a lot to prove, and I sincerely doubt that either Tom Thibodeau or Erik Spoelstra will idly watch their team go home before Game 7 has been played out.

The Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat are two extremely talented yet incredibly different teams, built upon conflicting foundations and strategies. While the Heat have become notorious for relying solely upon their big three for offense, the Bulls implore their size and depth advantage as much as possible to compliment the incredible scoring ability of 22 year old MVP Derrick Rose. Statistically, these teams are also two of the top defenses in the NBA, however the Bulls operate under Thibodeau’s defense- heavy half-court mindset, while the Heat are built for explosive blocks, steals, and especially the fast break.

The Heat’s two biggest weaknesses are their lack of depth and lack of size, and the Celtics were not able to take advantage of either. However, Thibs had clearly done his homework, and the Bulls proceeded to dominate the Heat in Game 1 with 19 offensive rebounds and 28 points off the bench. Spoelstra attempted to eliminate Chicago’s size advantage by putting in the same small lineup that worked against Boston, which includes LeBron at the power forward position. The Celtics collapsed against this lineup, as Doc Rivers put Paul Pierce down low to battle it out in the post with LeBron, eliminating any hopes of the Celtics picking up rebounds down the stretch. Rather than panicking, Thibodeau left a regular sized lineup in, and put quick backup big man Taj Gibson on James Jones on the perimeter. As a result, Jones’ impact on the game disappeared, Chicago’s size advantage became bigger than ever, and the Bulls coasted to a 103-82 victory.

Erik Spoelstra deserves some credit. He has been coaching all year under the media’s Pat Riley cloud, which is always looming over his head coaching position. Sure, the sheer amount of basketball talent that Spoelstra has been blessed with makes his job much easier, but regardless, he has coached his team through the Celtics series (broken as Boston may have been) and to the Conference Finals where his team must battle the league MVP and the Coach of the Year. Most importantly, he responded to Chicago’s performance in Game 1, and implored new strategies in Game 2 to help even the series.

The Heat did not experiment any further with their small lineup strategy against the Bulls, and won the rebounding battle 45-41 in Game 2. They rotated constantly on defense to help limit the scoring production of Rose, who was held to just 7-23 from the field. Finally, Spoelstra effectively addressed Miami’s glaring issue of their lack of a big man to help Chris Bosh hold down the paint by tripling Udonis Haslem’s playoff minutes, leaving him in for 23 minutes last night. Haslem not only had the big man impact off the bench that Gibson had for the Bulls in Game 1, but eliminated Gibson’s ability to repeat that performance since he was no longer towering over Miami’s players. Haslem’s 13 points and 5 rebounds helped address both of Miami’s main issues, and with the tough defense on Rose, the Heat came out on top 85-75 in Game 2.

As coaches, Tom Thibodeau and Erik Spoelstra both have so much left to prove this year, and they are each under the pressure of winning the NBA Finals or being dismissed as busts. Spoelstra’s team is stacked with young talent, and they have been the central focus of the NBA since LeBron’s “The Decision” last summer. Anything less than a championship this year could forever taint the careers of both LeBron and Spoelstra, as the Pat Riley cloud is always ominously looming. Thibs won the title of Coach of the Year in his first year as an NBA head coach, and has the league MVP as his point guard. The Bulls also finished the season with the best regular season record, and the #1 ranked defense in the league. Both of these men have a lot to prove, and look for Thibodeau and the Bulls to bounce back and take Game 3 in Miami. If Spoelstra can keep silencing his critics, many of whom believed Riley would be coaching the Heat by halfway through this season, look for the Heat to take Game 4. This series is a chess match… may the best man win.