Musselman sees hope for Bulls over Heat

Musselman sees hope for Bulls over Heat

Published May. 15, 2011 10:29 a.m. ET

Tom Thibodeau is the man who leads the Chicago Bulls, the NBA Coach of the Year and an architect of great defensive schemes.

LeBron James is the former Cavaliers star now with the Miami Heat, someone with great court vision and outstanding athleticism. He can score at will, especially when he takes the ball to the basket.

Finally, Eric Musselman is the son of a longtime pro coach, a pro coach himself (Golden State, Sacramento and now the D-League's Reno Bighorns). Like most of the basketball-following public, he is intrigued by the Bulls-Heat matchup in the Eastern Conference finals.

Much has been made of how James and the Heat overtook Boston to advance to where they are today.

But considerably less has been made of the fact Thibodeau was no longer on the Celtics’ sideline, where he spent three years as an assistant under Doc Rivers. In two of those three seasons, Thibodeau was credited with helping Rivers create a defense that led to James’ postseason demise.

And now they meet again.

Only this time, James has Dwyane Wade at his side. And to a lesser extent, forward Chris Bosh and an array of role players.

When James was with the Cavs, he never had a pair of teammates like Wade and Bosh. When Thibodeau was with the Celtics, he wasn’t the head coach.

So this is a different battle, a time when both James and Thibodeau are in different stages of their careers and in entirely different situations.

There will be no easy way for James and the Heat to beat the Bulls. There is no simple plan for Thibodeau and the Bulls to overtake the Heat.

The Heat have James, Wade and Bosh. The Bulls have point guard and league MVP Derrick Rose, not to mention an athletic frontcourt (Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng) and home-court advantage after finishing with the league's best record (62-20).

But as good as the Bulls have been on defense, offense has been an underrated key to their success. And it may be their only hope of taking down LeBron and the Heat.

“Good shot selection and taking care of the ball is really the key for the Bulls,” Musselman said. “Without those two things, (the Heat) will create turnovers, then take off in transition and get easy dunks.”

Musselman should know. His late father, Bill Musselman, was Thibodeau’s one-time boss — Thibodeau was an assistant on the elder Musselman’s staff with the Minnesota Timberwolves from 1989-91.

Meanwhile, the younger Musselman has studied both the Heat and Bulls and understands what has made both so effective.

“One thing the Bulls have to do is keep (the Heat) off the foul line,” Musselman said. “You can’t get into a high-volume, free-throw shooting type of game.”

Musselman was referring mostly to James and Wade, who are both capable off driving past defenders and getting hacked near the rim. If those two take a lot of free throws, chances are, you’re toast.

One thing the Bulls won’t be able to stop is the amount of jumpers, layups and dunks attempted by James and Wade. Each typically puts up from 15 to 20 (or more) attempts per night.

“They are going to take a high volume of shots,” Musselman predicted of James and Wade. “So if you’re the Bulls, you have to work on degree of difficulty. Instead of letting them shoot 45 percent, you have to try to keep them considerably lower than that by making them shoot under duress as much as possible.”

Musselman added the Bulls can do that with lots of help defense on the Heat’s two superstars, getting physical with Bosh and "not giving up any air space.”

“How you played LeBron in Cleveland — well, you have to throw that out the window,” Musselman said. “Boston was a superior team to Cleveland last season. LeBron had different pieces around him then. The Celtics only had one dynamic to deal with (against the Cavs). This is a whole different game plan.”

In other words, for the Bulls to have any hope against the Heat, they have to do what they’ve done all season, only better.

They have to adhere to Thibodeau’s strategy, with near-flawless execution — especially when you consider he has beaten James before. So he knows what he is talking about. On the bright side, it has taken less than one season for Thibodeau to show he has a complete handle on his new team.

“The biggest thing that's made the Bulls successful this season is accountability,” Musselman said. “As a coach, you need to hold everyone accountable in the same way — whether it’s the best player or the worst player. With Thibodeau, everybody has bought in to the fact that, in order to get on the floor, you have to defend. So there is consistency with the way he coaches.”

Will that be enough to turn LeBron and the Heat into spectators for the Finals?

We won't know the real answer for a week, perhaps more. Most of it will depend on if James' decision to team up with other stars is enough to finally get him past Thibodeau's scheming.