Bulls can stand the Heat

CHICAGO -- In early December, a reporter wanted to get ahead of the big story and ask some Chicago Bulls about facing the Miami Heat in a playoff rematch.

This was before they had played a game. Not that it matters. Most look at the regular season, not to mention the first two rounds of the playoffs, as a warm-up act to the real playoffs.

The way the Bulls have started the season has only served to validate that line of thought.

But this was before the season began. Going back to last season, these Bulls have been dedicated practitioners of the Tao of Thibs, a monklike devotion to focusing on the next game.

But outside of the prevalence of Gucci and Louis in their wardrobe, NBA players are just like us; they look ahead, too. And Bulls players want a rematch against the Heat even more than the most die-hard fans do. Way more, in fact.

The specter of LeBron James is always in the room, and there's no sense acting as if it doesn't exist. There is very likely no success this season without beating Miami, and the Bulls are defining success as winning their last game.

"You guys can ask us 100 times about the Heat; it's OK," said Luol Deng back then, as he leaned up against the scorer's table at an empty United Center. "We know we've got to go through them, and it's something we're not going to try and go around. When you come against teams like that, you don't want to go around them. You know this year, sooner or later, we're going to meet the Heat again."

That day is Sunday, as the NBA markets its most marketable rivalry: the Big Three vs. the Big One in the midafternoon on ABC.

It's a big game, and it will draw high ratings. But, in Chicago, it just doesn't feel critical right now. Yes, beating Miami is always important, but it's only truly so in late May. Last season, the Bulls swept Miami in the regular season. What did that do for them but ratchet up the expectations?

As Joakim Noah reminded us the other night, the Bulls worry only about themselves, not the other teams. That's what contenders do. And right now, the Bulls have plenty to worry about.

Derrick Rose's toe injury could linger all season, which has Bulls fans' stomachs in knots. Deng's status is up in the air as he tries to play through a wrist injury to his non-shooting hand -- he's only the second most important Bull. Super-sub Taj Gibson is coming back from an ankle injury, and the defense is less stout without him.

Most Bulls fans would just be happy with an absence of walking boots Sunday, forget a win.

With Deng out, the magnitude of the game has been lessened.

Last season, when the teams met for the first time at the United Center, there was something missing, too: James, who was dinged up. Without him on the court, the Bulls won 99-96 on a late 3 by Kyle Korver. Rose dominated, outdueling Dwyane Wade for the win.

Chicago then held Miami to fewer than 90 points in its next two wins. Then the Bulls dominated the Heat in the opener of the Eastern Conference finals. You know what happened next.

After the Pacers dealt the Bulls their first home loss Wednesday, Rose ruefully told reporters he won't soon forget watching them celebrate. How do you think he feels about Miami?

He spent a week in his townhouse after that five-game series, living in his pajamas, while his MVP trophy stood in his living room as a reminder that he couldn't win everything.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau welcomed his team to a truncated training camp with repeated showings of that series. It might have been Rose's first NC-17 film.

Noah called the footage "painful" -- and "motivational."

"Everything that is painful is motivating at the end of the day," Noah said in December. "It took me a long time, a long time, to get over that."

Sunday's game won't erase the sting, but that's good. The Bulls need to channel that anger into every game this season as they prepare mentally for the playoffs. The season is important, don't be confused. Mental and physical repetition are borne during these hard months.

And, in a 66-game season, Chicago needs every bit of cushion it can get, especially with an injury-riddled roster.

The Bulls want a win, but they don't quite need it. They need to stay healthy and need the players on the floor to execute -- even if it's Brian Scalabrine in the corner for a 3.

They know they can compete with Miami already, but a little reminder wouldn't hurt.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.