Bulls and Heat meet for the first time at full strength


Feb 23

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Yes, there was the game with the Toronto Raptors Wednesday, which marked the return after missing 30 games (22-8) of Joakim Noah. There was the trade Tuesday of James Johnson, who went to Toronto and saw his former teammates in Toronto. There’s been the ongoing trade talk for perhaps a shooting guard, though it didn’t seem likely late Wednesday that the Bulls would complete a trade before Thursday’s NBA trade deadline.

But in some sense, it’s all an appetizer for Thursday, when the Miami Heat is at the United Center to play the Bulls for the first time this season with both teams basically at full strength.

This game with Miami is not only the next measuring stick for the Bulls; it is the first of two games between the teams in the next 10 days, the final times they’ll meet this season.

And suddenly with the Carmelo Anthony trade to the New York Knicks, the games between the Bulls and Heat not only will perhaps separate the contender from the hopeful, but also could be major positioning contests for the playoffs.

It’s easy, sure, to dismiss the Knicks with Anthony and say their defense isn’t good enough and they no longer have enough depth.

But it seems likely the Knicks will get the No. 6 seed in the East with the 76ers two games behind and the Hawks five games ahead.

Given the Knicks have Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, both All-Star starters, and Chauncey Billups, a five time All-Star and an All-Star as recently as last season, you likely don’t want to get matched against that talent and experience in a first round series with the Knicks compared with say, the likely No. 5 Hawks or the probable No. 7 76ers.

Like Anthony said at his press conference Wednesday, “When you get to the playoffs anything can happen.”

You don’t want to have to play three veteran All-Stars and all-league players in a playoff series if you don’t have to. You likely won’t have to if you can get out of the No. 3 seed in the East, which is just one story line for Thursday’s game with Miami.

The obvious one is the anticipation of playing the much discussed Miami Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who went into Wednesday’s games tied with Boston for the No. 1 spot in the Eastern Conference. Reserve Mike Miller is out with a concussion.

And no one is looking past Miami now after the Heat has been the league’s best team after a 9-8 start and beginning to feel very confident.

“We’re getting there,” Wade told me during All-Star weekend. “We do know in time we’ll get more help for our core.”

That was a reference to some saying the time to get Miami is now before they add pieces. And though it may be difficult given the pending landscape after collective bargaining, with those three players there is going to be interest in players joining them. Already, the rumors are Troy Murphy will get a buyout from the Warriors after the trade and has the Heat on his list of teams.

“We’re figuring it out,” said Wade. “We understand our game now and how we need to play and be successful. There are teams better than us as teams. But individually we feel we can match up with anyone.

“It would be very disappointing if we didn’t win the championship (this season),” said Wade. “We understand the growth process, and I’ve been there before, losing the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals and then coming back and winning a championship the next year.

“I look back growing up at the Bulls,” said Wade, a Bulls fan raised in Chicago. “This is a different time. They were untouchable. I don’t think they had as many (good) teams to compete against in the Eastern Conference as we do, teams that can compete for a championship.”

Wade made his comments before the Anthony trade was official, though it was expected by then, and before still another Western Conference All-Star, Deron Williams, was traded to the Nets.

“So it’s tough,” said Wade. “But it’s going to be a great thrill. We’re just trying to stay healthy and get better and better. Like the dynasty Bulls. They got better and better every year. They did a great job adding the right pieces around the core guys of Michael and Scottie, and we are hope to do that. The Bulls were a dynasty, the Lakers, the Celtics. We’d love to be that.”

So the race begins. It’s a tough run for the Bulls after Thursday with eight of their next 12 on the road, including games in Miami, Orlando, Atlanta and Charlotte. The Bulls close the season with 15 of their last 26 on the road. The Heat see the Knicks Sunday after the big game with the Bulls Thursday and then play the Magic, Spurs, Bulls again, Trail Blazers and Lakers. We should have a pretty good idea in the next couple of weeks where teams stand for that first week of the playoffs.

The Bulls own the tiebreaker over the Heat with that narrow January win in which James didn’t play. Now, the Bulls will see Miami’s Big Three in full health.

Will a Chicago Big Three of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer be enough? If the Bulls win Thursday, they lock up the tiebreaker with Miami with just three games between the teams this season. If Miami wins, they get the tiebreaker game back home March 6 on national TV.

And it becomes all about statements and messages and that the regular season does mean something. Let the fun begin. At least once the Bulls clear customs.

What do you think? Leave a comment below: