Final Heat showdown can wrap up top seed

CHARLOTTE -- A veteran of 13 grueling NBA seasons, Richard Hamilton knows that some games mean more than others over the course of a regular-season schedule.

Given the condensed nature of this lockout-shortened 66-game schedule, Hamilton knows that Thursday's showdown with the Miami Heat is one of those matchups.

"I feel as though since they were the team that made it to the Finals last year, they're the team to beat," Hamilton said after Wednesday night's 100-68 blowout win over the Charlotte Bobcats. "You got to go through them. So the intensity is always going to be high, and in order for you to get to where you want to get to, since they were the team that went to the Finals last year, you feel as though you've got to go through them, you can't go around them."

The Bulls come into Thursday's contest up two games in the loss column for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. They know a win will solidify the No. 1 seed, and they are looking forward to the challenge.

"Every game is a war, relatively speaking, a battle," Bulls forward Carlos Boozer said. "It's hard-fought. They all come down to one- or two-possession games, usually in the last seconds of the game, so it should be fun. ... I think both teams are very good. I think both teams put a lot into it, defensively, offensively. It's the two best teams in the East."

Boozer knows that a victory in Miami would give his team the momentum it needs heading into the postseason.

"For us, we want to continue to win," he said. "We want to go into the playoffs playing well so we can have a little bit of momentum. Obviously we want to lock up that No. 1 seed throughout [the playoffs]. It's the next game on the calendar, big game, we want to win."

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau wouldn't come right out and say it, but he has to want to win Thursday's game badly because he knows it would solidify the Bulls' position heading into the postseason next weekend.

"Ideally, you try to put as many things in your favor as possible," Thibodeau said Wednesday morning. "Is it a must? I always think that if you can get it, you get it, and if not whatever your circumstances are, you make the best of those circumstances. We're young, and I want us to continue to improve, learn how to win. Last year I thought home-court [advantage] helped us a lot. But if you don't have home-court, you don't. Then you have to win more on the road, that's all."

Hamilton believes that the key for the Bulls is being able to slow down the Heat in transition.

"Miami's a great team," he said. "They've got special players in LeBron, D-Wade, Chris Bosh and things like that. You got to make them play at your pace. You've got to make them play a half-court game. When they get up and down the court and go on the break and make easy plays, then that's when they're good. When you turn them into a half-court game, then your chances are a lot better."

In Boozer's mind, respect is at the forefront of each duel. He said last week on ESPN 1000's "Waddle & Silvy Show" that he wasn't sure whether the Heat actually respected the Bulls after the way they ran past them in the Eastern Conference finals last spring. When asked the same question Wednesday night, Boozer softened his stance just a bit.

"I don't know," he said. "If they do, they do. If they don't, they don't. I'm not really concerned with that. I'm more concerned with how we're doing and how we're progressing, and how we're getting better, and today was a great step in the right direction."