Heat-Bulls matchup offers intrigue

Dwyane WadeAP Photo/Charles Cherney

Heat vs. Bulls features a bunch of compelling stories, including a battle between Wade and Rose, two Chicago natives.

MIAMI -- If you want to know particulars about the Chicago Bulls, just ask LeBron James. He can give you the vitals right off the top of his head.

“Even with Joakim Noah out for the last 30 games, they went 22-8 in the span,” James said as if he were reading the line right off the Bulls’ daily media notes.

“Along with us and Boston, we all rank 1, 2 and 3 in the defensive categories,” James said accurately, referring to points allowed, defensive field goal percentage and rebounding differential, among others metrics where the Bulls rank near the top.

James has clearly been studying the Miami Heat's Thursday night opponent in what is once again shaping into a serious Eastern Conference test for the Heat. Miami hasn’t passed many of these so far. They are 0-3 against the Boston Celtics and 0-1 against the Bulls. They are 2-1 against the Orlando Magic and have split a pair of games with the Atlanta Hawks in Miami.

It was less than two weeks ago that the Heat faced this same sort of crucible in Boston, and they delivered their worst performance in weeks in a loss to the Celtics. It was a defeat that cost them what could be a valuable tiebreaker in the Eastern Conference standings.

Losing that game to their major rivals was more than just about the standings, though, it was a psychological blow that clearly affected the team for two days.

The stakes are high again on Thursday. The Bulls, who are right on the Heat’s tail in the standings, can clinch the tiebreaker with a victory. Chicago will also be at full strength with Noah back and expected to play. So will the Heat, who lost last month in Chicago when James was out and Chris Bosh couldn’t play in the fourth quarter with an ankle injury.

But deeper than the impact on the standings will be the effect of the game on the ego. The Bulls, who like to play rough, especially with big men Noah and Carlos Boozer, will want to send a message.

The Heat have a fantastic record over the past three months, but don’t have a signature win in their own conference yet. Another loss, especially with their big three healthy, will be tough to swallow.

“It’s the second half of the season so every has [the playoffs] in their minds now,” Bosh said. “We don’t want to give anyone confidence. We want to show them that we can go in there and be a handful.

The Chicago-Miami matchup is simply intriguing for several reasons, not the least of which is, right now, it projects to be a second-round playoff series.

The Bulls are strongest at the Heat’s weakest positions, point guard and center. Dealing with Derrick Rose and Noah will be a challenge for Miami for one night or over a seven-game series. The Bulls are also a physical team with their big men, not a strong suit of the Heat, who had been starting a couple of finesse big men, Bosh and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Erik Spoelstra changed his starting lineup on Tuesday, inserting the more rugged Erick Dampier at center, in part, because of this very reason.

“Booz is an undersized 4, [Bosh] has him in height and Boozer has [Bosh] in weight,” James said, breaking down the big-man matchups. “With [Dampier] and Joakim, Damp is a bit stronger and Joakim is more agile. It should be interesting, we’ll have to be on our A game as far as rebounding.”

Second, the Heat are a challenge to the Bulls’ style of defense. Chicago has good perimeter defenders, especially the underrated Ronnie Brewer. But historically, James has eviscerated his opposite number on the Bulls, Luol Deng. And the combination of Wade and James on the attack will strongly test the Bulls’ goal, which is to prevent dribble penetration and force lower percentage outside shots.

Third, there’s the non-basketball factors that add spice to the budding rivalry. Both James and Wade considered signing with the Bulls last summer but decided to pass. At the time, Rose was not aggressive in recruiting them. Also, Chicago is Wade’s hometown, and he is now getting booed there, while Rose, another hometown star, takes up residence as the most popular Bull since Michael Jordan.

“I’ve had some games where I’ve struggled there,” Wade said. “I really wanted that game [last time in Chicago] and there’s not many games that I really come in and say that.”

It is probably going to be the same this time around with the stakes naturally higher. The Heat, who have been a targeted team all season, aren’t dodging that reality. They know this is one of the games that the result will be magnified much more than just a regular-season game.

“I think it’s a huge test,” James said. “We look forward to the challenge.”