MIAMI -- LeBron James had just been officially introduced as a member of the 2012 USA Basketball team last July in Las Vegas when he sat down at a small table in a large conference room for yet another session with the media. As the conversation turned from Team USA's chances in London to the upcoming season, James mentioned how several teams in the East were in the midst of improving themselves. The New York Knicks had just added Jason Kidd, the Brooklyn Nets were in the middle of a high priced roster renovation that would eventually land them Joe Johnson, among others. The Celtics were trying to keep up with the times by adding several new pieces after losing veteran sharp shooter Ray Allen to the Heat.
As James spoke, one team was conspicuously absent in his thoughts -- the Chicago Bulls.
Obviously, the Bulls roster was in a state of flux after former MVP Derrick Rose went down a couple months earlier in the playoffs. Nobody was quite sure what moves the Chicago front office would make, especially given their crowded salary cap situation. But what became clear then, and clearer over the course of this season, is that as much as the Bulls may think they have a budding rivalry going with James and the Heat, the reigning MVP doesn't really feel the same way. Sure, he respects the way the Bulls compete under Tom Thibodeau and he knows they have the capability to beat him as evidenced by the fact that the Bulls come into Sunday's showdown having already knocked off the Heat twice this season -- and snapping Miami's 27 games losing streak last month. But James doesn't seem to view the Bulls the same way the Bulls and their fans view his team.
"Anytime you have an MVP on your team, and he's coming back from an injury but he will be back, they contend," James said at the time, when asked if he still felt the Bulls were a championship caliber team. "Coach Thibs put those guys out there in a position to win and as players that's all you can ask for."
But does he still consider them a rival?
"Well we only played them once," James said. "We only played them once in the postseason (2011 Eastern Conference finals). For me, my only rival right now is Boston. I played those guys over and over and over and over each and every year no matter what city I've been in. Rivalries start when you play teams over and over. Like in my early days in Cleveland, Washington was my rival. I played them two years in a row in the postseason. Every game in the regular season was heated. We can see that happening with a lot of teams (now), but you don't know."
When I posed the same question to Dwyane Wade last summer, he was a little more demure in his response but it was clear he felt the same way.
"When we think about rivals, we think about people that you've had a lot of history with," Wade said. "The Miami Heat's history is the New York Knicks. And our history as players in our nine years is with the Boston Celtics. That's our rivalry. The Chicago Bulls is a very good team; with Derrick Rose healthy (they're) one of the best teams in the league year after year. So with him healthy, yeah, you know they're going to be right in the mix. We look forward to that though. We take the challenge and hopefully we can meet up again. I thought last year when we met up in the playoffs, even though we won in five games, it was a lot closer than that and it was a very good series for basketball fans."
Wade admitted during last year's playoffs that even he was a little surprised that the Bulls didn't end up playing the Heat last season after all the buildup between the two teams, but James honestly didn't seem to care. No matter who was on the floor, he was confident that he and his team could beat them. Two months after winning his first NBA championship, the Bulls and their injured superstar were little more than afterthought.
"I don't worry about other teams," James said. "All I worry about is what we're doing in our locker room to get better each and every day and trying to prepare. I really didn't care (that we didn't end up playing them)."
James may not care much about playing the Bulls as he continues his quest towards a second straight title ... but the Bulls certainly care about playing him. While Thibodeau's players have always gone out of their way to talk about how the approach for each game has to be the same -- recent history suggests otherwise. They know that facing the Heat is different and they play like they want to prove a point.
"They got the best record in the league, I believe," Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich said after Friday night's loss to the Toronto Raptors. "So any time you play a team that's on top it's sort of a measuring stick of where you're at. Just go out there and compete and do everything you possibly can to try to pull out a win."
James will do that, too -- especially given that he and his teammates want to send a message to the Bulls after they snapped the Heat's streak. But the days of James worrying about what moves the Bulls are making and how they are shaping up are long gone. The Bulls' best chance to beat the Heat came two years ago and they couldn't shut games down when they needed to do so. Now the Bulls are just another blip on the basketball radar that James and his team are in complete control of at the moment.