Best of the east

I have been rolling with my weekly NBA predictions story – thanks to the two Florida teams that’s three straight weeks with ATS wins. Hopefully it’s not just a Thursday on TNT thing because that network doesn’t have the NBA the next two Thursdays thanks to the NCAA Tournament. So instead I give you a Wednesday night ESPN preview between the Eastern Conference’s two best teams by far, the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls.

The last time the Heat visited the Windy City was May 26, 2011. Miami beat the Bulls, 83-80, to win the East Finals four games to one – winning the final four games of the series. That series in particular was a big reason the Bulls went out and acquired shooting guard Richard Hamilton, but we won’t know if he will make a difference against Miami quite yet (more on him below).

Including this game, Chicago and Miami face off three times in the season’s final seven-plus weeks or so. It’s not out of the question that a one-sided result on Wednesday could spur one of these clubs to make a trade before Thursday’s deadline (especially if Bulls lose). Reports are the Bulls have the pieces that Orlando wants for Dwight Howard – Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Omer Asik and a first-round pick (Charlotte’s) – but that Howard doesn’t want to play in Chicago. The Bulls won’t make the trade without Howard’s assurance that he will sign a long- term extension after the season.

How the Teams Enter

The Heat had won three in a row, all at home, entering Tuesday night’s game at Orlando, the first of a tough four-game stretch for Miami (at Philly and home to the Magic after the Bulls game). The Heat were somewhat fortunate to win Sunday at home against the Pacers as over the final 18:18 of play, Miami led for just 12.2 seconds. Dwayne Wade won it with a jumper with 0.1 seconds left in overtime. The Heat entered Tuesday having lost two straight on the road, but didn’t have Chris Bosh for either of those games (since back).

Chicago added to the Knicks’ woes on Monday night with a 104-99 home win to improve to 17-3 at the United Center. Derrick Rose had 32 points, six rebounds and seven assists as the Bulls won for the 10th time in 11 games. Jeremy Lin was simply unable to cover Rose (I think it’s fair to say “Linsanity” is now over). The only loss in that 11-game stretch for Chicago was last Thursday’s TNT home game vs. the Magic.

Betting Story Lines

Injuries could play a key role here and perhaps be hugely in the Heat’s favor. Miami swingman Mike Miller, the NBA’s leading three-point shooter, didn’t play Tuesday and won’t in this one due to an ankle sprain that likely keeps him out all week. He didn’t even travel with the club. Miller, shooting 49.3 percent from long range, had been LeBron James’ primary backup at small forward in recent weeks as the Heat shored up a nine-man rotation. Miller’s shooting touch can be replaced by James Jones, but forward/center Dexter Pittman also might see the court more.

The Bulls, meanwhile, played without starters Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton and Rose backup C.J. Watson – who also plays some shooting guard – on Monday. Deng, an all-star, sat out for the second straight game after his left wrist injury flared up during last Thursday’s loss to Orlando. He would be the guy who would mostly guard James. Hamilton missed his fourth straight game because of a right shoulder contusion and minor sprain. He has missed 27 games this season due to various injuries. His length would be key in helping to guard Wade. Watson missed his fifth game in a row because of a sprained left ankle.

The good news is that it looks like Deng will try to play (he practiced Tuesday) and that Watson will be a game-time call. There’s no way Hamilton goes. Guys like Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and rookie Jimmy Butler will continue to see more minutes if Deng/Watson are out or limited.

The Heat beat the Bulls, 97-93, in January (Chicago was +4.5), the latest in a string of close games between the teams. The past four regular-season games between the east powers have been decided by an average of three points. LeBron had 35 points and 11 boards in that first meeting this season, while Rose had 34 points but missed two free throws with 22.7 seconds left and a potential tying shot with 3.7 seconds remaining. Those are the kinds of things Rose remembers and uses as motivation.

Deng and Watson both missed that game for Chicago. Hamilton did play and had 11 points while harassing Wade into 4-for-16 shooting and just 15 points.

Odds and Key Trends

The Bulls opened as three-point favorites with the total at 192 on NBA odds. Miami is 20-20 ATS this season (entering Tuesday) and 10-10 on road. Chicago is 26-18 ATS overall and 10- 10 at home. ‘Over/under’ records: MIA 17-21-2, CHI 24-19-1.

The Heat are 0-5 ATS in their past five Wednesday games. The Bulls are 5-1 ATS in their past six games against teams with winning records. Miami is 4-1 ATS in the past five meetings in this series (Heat won all five).


The Chicago frontcourt of Boozer, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Asik is going to have to dominate the Miami frontcourt because that’s where the Bulls have the obvious advantage. Look for the Heat to trap Rose everywhere he goes and to stick LeBron on him much like in the fourth quarters of last year’s playoff series. If Chicago is ahead after three quarters, that’s a good thing. The Bulls are 30-0 this season when ahead after three.

This game is very tough because of not knowing about Deng and Watson. I think Rose will be on a mission after taking the blame for the loss in the first meeting. Could the Bulls also perhaps have to sit a player who might be about to be dealt on Thursday to avoid injury? There’s some talk Chicago is looking into Pau Gasol. Too many variables right now with the Bulls so I would have to take the Heat and the points.

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