The Chicago Bulls survived a Game 7 on the road to advance in the Eastern Conference playoffs and face the top-seeded Miami Heat. The injury-ravaged Bulls don’t look likely to pose much of a threat to the prohibitive championship favorites, but that doesn’t mean the series won’t be worth watching.
When Derrick Rose returns to Chicago’s lineup next season (barring a miraculous change of heart in the next week), the Bulls will be the Heat’s toughest competition in the East. With that future in mind, here are some issues to keep an eye on as Miami’s run to a presumed coronation continues:
1. Can Carlos Boozer keep up his high level of play?
For the first prolonged stretch since joining the Bulls, Carlos Boozer looked like his old All-Star self in the series win over Brooklyn. Boozer’s offensive aggressiveness and hard work on the glass gave Reggie Evans and company fits for seven games.
Had Boozer played that well against Chris Bosh and the Heat two years ago, the Bulls might have advanced to the NBA Finals. Now, he’ll get his chance to show that he can present a legitimate matchup problem for Miami as a primary offensive option.
2. What will Luol Deng be able to give the Bulls?
The defender who can guard LeBron James this season does not exist, but a healthy Luol Deng would’ve been closer than almost anyone. Sadly, Deng—recovering from complications from a spinal tap procedure—is far from healthy, and far from a lock even to play in the series opener.
When he does return, the two-time All-Star will get his chance to show how much his offensive game has grown in Rose’s absence. He’s a safe bet to harass James with his defense as usual, but if he can make the four-time MVP work to guard him, it’ll be a huge boost to Chicago’s scoring prospects.
3. How will Nate Robinson handle the Heat defense?
The long arms of James and Dwyane Wade make Miami the most explosive perimeter defensive team in the league, and almost every turnover turns into a highlight-reel dunk. That’s bad news for undersized Nate Robinson, who tends to get caught in bad decisions even by ordinary defenses.
Robinson will get his three-pointers, just as he did against the bigger Deron Williams in the first round, but his floor leadership is going to be severely tested. His performance in this series will say a lot about how much Chicago is willing to spend to re-sign him in the offseason (when his brilliance in the Brooklyn series is sure to elevate his asking price).
4. Can Joakim Noah challenge Miami as a scorer?
Noah made his first All-Star appearance this season, overwhelmingly on the strength of his defense and rebounding acumen. Against Miami, though, the Bulls need their high-energy center to play the kind of attacking offense that carried them in Game 7 against the Nets.
Noah is likely to draw veteran Udonis Haslem as a defensive matchup, and he has the length and quickness to make plays against the 6’8” journeyman. The more pressure Noah and Boozer can apply inside, the less James and Wade can focus on their own perimeter assignments, and the better Chicago’s offense will flow.