1. Heat Look For Leading Indicators In Chicago
CHICAGO -- Think about the most challenging scenario a team that's been struggling with slow starts could be given. Perhaps a noon Sunday game on the road against a rugged opponent on the first day of daylight savings time, which makes it essentially an 11 a.m. start.
The Miami Heat did something on their current road trip that hasn't happened during the past four seasons: They lost two straight games they never led for a second. The Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs beat them wire-to-wire as the Heat got off to sluggish starts both nights and never recovered.
Now it's an early tip-off with the Bulls, who are coming off a disappointing home loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday. The Bulls are always up for the Heat, especially at home, where they ended the Heat's 27-game win streak last season.
When the two teams played two weeks ago in Miami, the Bulls jumped out to an early lead by shooting 46 percent in the first quarter, which is a very good number for the offensively-challenged Bulls. The Heat came back to win that game but know that another poor start would be a problem.
"When you're playing good teams in their building and you don't play well in the first quarter, it's going to be hard to get the lead," Dwyane Wade said after the Heat held an extended practice on Saturday.
The Heat gave up 39 points on 65 percent shooting to the Rockets in the first quarter in their loss last Tuesday. Then, on Thursday in San Antonio, the Spurs racked up 79 percent shooting and 37 points in the first quarter after a parade of layups as the Heat opened the game sluggish again.
The two losses took the Heat from an eight-game win streak to their first mini-slump in the second half of the season. It was a missed opportunity to make up ground on the Indiana Pacers, who are on a season-long three-game losing streak.
"Good starts don't guarantee you anything, but when we're successful on the road against good teams, we're able to impose our will early on," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "That clearly wasn't the case the last two games."
SUNDAY'S ABC, ESPN RADIO GAMES
• Heat-Bulls, 1 p.m. ET
• Thunder-Lakers, 3:30 p.m. ET
Saturday, the Heat held nearly a three-hour session looking at film and practicing, one of their longest road workouts of the season.
"This isn't AAU; you can't just move on to the next game," Spoelstra said. "We had to review it and own it and get better at the things we need to."
In the last meeting, the Bulls were without starting guard Jimmy Butler with a rib injury. He's back now, and Joakim Noah, who's been bothered by a recent thumb injury, is also expected to play. The Bulls haven't lost back-to-back games in more than a month and haven't dropped two in a row at home since mid-December.
"We're very focused on getting off to a better start," LeBron James said. "We've been digging ourselves a hole, which is something you can't do on the road."
Phil Jackson Watch
Heat Going Bigger
For those just tuning in, it might not seem as if much has changed since June. The Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs are both back in the title hunt, featuring a lot of familiar faces.
But if you look closely, the Heat are bigger than they might appear.
Rewind to June 14, 2012, when the Heat topped the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 2 of the NBA Finals. With Chris Bosh medically cleared to play regular minutes, coach Erik Spoelstra famously went unconventional and replaced Udonis Haslem, not Shane Battier, with Bosh. While the Thunder stayed big with Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins in the frontcourt, Spoelstra decided to go in the other direction: spread the floor and keep Battier in rather than stick with a traditional two-bigs lineup.
The rest is history. With Bosh at the 5, the Heat won the next four games for title No. 1, then won again last season against the Spurs for title No. 2. Really, until Game 2 in the 2012 Finals, Spoelstra had largely run out another traditional big to complement the team's star trio. Remember the Erick Dampier era? That approach was quickly trashed.
Going "unconventional" became Spoelstra's battle cry. But this season, big is the new small in Miami. With a chance at title No. 3, the Heat have quietly reverted back to the two-bigs strategy for large segments of the game.
And it has worked
D'Antoni And Losing
After a series of discussions following a stretch of historically bad losses this week, the Los Angeles Lakers do not believe an in-season coaching change will help the team and remain inclined to support Mike D'Antoni over the final 19 games of the season, sources with knowledge of the situation told ESPN.com.
The Lakers have endured one of the most tumultuous seasons in franchise history, with injuries to future Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, constant tension between D'Antoni and forward Pau Gasol, the in-season trade of veteran point guard Steve Blake and numerous other injuries to key players. While there is disappointment and frustration at the Lakers' abysmal 21-42 record, general manager Mitch Kupchak has maintained a strong relationship with D'Antoni and has appreciated the job he's done in keeping the team together and competitive on most nights.
Shortly after Thursday night's 48-point loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, Kupchak met separately with D'Antoni and vice president of player personnel Jim Buss to discuss the state of the team, sources told ESPN on Friday.
D'Antoni confirmed the meeting with Kupchak, characterizing it as "normal" before the Lakers played the Denver Nuggets on Friday.
"We just went over stuff and said, 'Well, we didn't play very well,'" D'Antoni said.
Who's Better? 'Nobody'
DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Tom Thibodeau has been around professional basketball for well more than two decades. He has a passion for the game and the intricacies that separate the good players from the great ones. He studies compulsively to try to make sure his Chicago Bulls team always has an advantage when it steps onto the floor. That's why his praise of Miami Heat superstar LeBron James is so telling. When asked Saturday to compare James to another player he's watched or coached against in years past, Thibodeau didn't hesitate.
"Nobody," Thibodeau said.
"Because you're combining the speed, the power, the skills, the passing, the vision. I can't recall anyone that I've coached against that's like that. There's nothing that he doesn't do. He's great with the ball, great without the ball, can post, can drive, can shoot, can really pass. If you overcommit to him he's going to make you really pay. And he keeps getting better every year. So he's an all-time great."
Thibodeau always talk about how the Bulls must play team defense against a player like James. But the reality, as the veteran coach knows, is that it's much, much easier said than done as his team once against gets set to host James and the Heat on Sunday afternoon. James is the best player in the world, and he can take over the game whenever he wants.