Bulls facing big test in Miami Sunday


Jan 28

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It’s national TV; last season’s Eastern Conference finalists; the team with the best record in the conference, the Bulls; against the team most expect to win the NBA title, the Miami Heat.

It doesn’t get any bigger than Sunday in Miami for a regular season NBA game, and if the coaches don’t care to acknowledge that and the Bulls are not permitted to, then the guys who have been there before will tell you.

“That is the kind of game where you are saying, ‘No, it’s not your time yet,’” said former Bull Horace Grant, who played in a bunch of these. “You want to make sure it’s a statement game, that when you meet again in the playoffs, and you probably will, you don’t want them thinking at all they can beat you.”

It wasn’t quite that way last season as the Bulls swept the regular season 3-0 over the Heat, though just the last one in Miami and on a last second play. Because the Heat then beat the Bulls 4-1 in the conference finals.

But that was a Miami team under the most intense scrutiny all season and then still without any portfolio. Now they are Eastern Conference champions and the preseason title favorites with the Western Conference vastly weakened. So even though no one in Miami is saying so publicly—lest Pat Riley comes down and personally crushed their vocal cords—this is a big time game for the Heat.

The Heat for their part report no injuries for the first time since LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined the team. And James is playing at a remarkably high level on course to another MVP. So they are not about to show a chink by allowing a Bulls team, especially a beat up team with perhaps Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton out injured, to come in and suggest they may not be all there are supposed to be. You’d think.

Grant understands that as the starting power forward for the Bulls championship teams from 1991 through 1993. Later, Grant would start for a Lakers’ title team.

And he said one of the rules for remaining a champion was not to show weakness, not to allow your biggest rival—and it is the Bulls for Miami—to come into your arena and win. You want to crush out that notion they have, make them question whether they can get it done.

“We felt as a team we were actually ticked off if they thought they could come in and beat us,” said Grant. “It’s ‘No, nah, ah.’ It’s not being cocky or arrogant. But we’re the champs. It’s like they are the baby still on the bottle. We wanted to make sure to keep them there.”

Grant, who is doing international clinics and appearances for the NBA these days while also coaching his young daughter’s teams in northern California, said it was the Knicks’ challenge in the Bulls early title years. Like with Miami now, it was Riley then as well, though as coach. The Knicks would push the Bulls to a seventh game in the 1992 conference semifinals and take a 2-0 lead in the 1993 Eastern Conference finals. But the Bulls would always go home and win, in part, because they never allowed the Knicks to gain the confidence they could succeed in Chicago.

The Bulls had won 13 straight over the Knicks at home before a late season win in the 1992-93 season, a domination that the Knicks could never quite shake. Since the Bulls began making their run in 1988-89, the Bulls are 17-1 in the playoffs at home against the Knicks. Likewise, when Miami, Orlando and Indiana made their runs during the second championship threepeat, none ever won a playoff game in Chicago and the Bulls were 15-3 at home combined against the three in those seasons.

Many still wonder if the Knicks hadn’t gotten that charitable foul call against Scottie Pippen in the 1994 playoffs whether they could have beaten the Bulls because the Knicks still could not win a game even in that series in Chicago.

That is the first major step to being a champion, which is why Sunday’s is perhaps an even bigger game for the Heat. Especially against what has to be an underdog Bulls team with injuries and less respect. After all, almost no one had a healthy Bulls team this season seriously challenging Miami. And the Bulls lead the East for now at 17-4 with Miami two games behind at 14-5. And Miami now has Dwyane Wade back after missing six games with a sprained ankle.

No one dare say anything substantive about the matchup, which is predictable as Riley hovers over both teams. Of course, the now rarely even seen Riley is the Heat president. Riley gave Jeff Van Gundy his start in coaching, and Van Gundy has been a mentor and guide for Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. They practice Riley’s code of not giving anything the opposition can use. Riley even banned his players in those years from socializing with friends on the Bulls.

So everyone, not unexptectedly, has been downplaying the game with that “just another game” thing.

Don’t you believe it.

“I remember the games like that,” said Grant. “Sunday, NBC (then the NBA network), big market teams, the league’s star players, all the media. Those were the must win kind. You know the other team really wants to beat you and send that message. Those are the games you play for.”

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