Bulls ready for clash with LeBron, Heat

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bulls expect LeBron James to play Sunday. Actually, they're hoping for it. Seriously.

"I hope he's OK," Bulls center Joakim Noah said after the Bulls picked up their fifth straight win Friday night over the Denver Nuggets. "Of course we want LeBron to play. I hope his nose is OK."

The challenge of slowing down James is a challenge the Bulls want. Noah, who admits that he always looks forward to playing in Miami against the Heat, wants to see how his team stacks up against the best. And make no mistake, no matter how much Noah may dislike James -- and vice versa -- the respect both men have for each other is evident every time they hit the floor.

"They're back-to-back champions," Noah said. "So you want to play against the best just to measure yourself against the best. We feel like we can compete against them. We've beaten them before. They're playing at a high level right now. They're playing really good basketball. They're locked in, but we're locked in, too. So we're confident we can go out there and get it done."

The subplots between the two teams are stacked high whenever they play because of their history over the last few years, both in the regular season and in the playoffs. But it's the interaction between James and the Bulls that is always most intriguing. It dates to James' days with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Bulls have always respected the special talent that James possesses -- but they just don't like him.

They don't like the way he carries himself -- as evidenced by Noah memorably yelling at James from the bench during a 2009 game in Cleveland when he thought James was dancing and showboating too much on the floor. They don't like the fact that James has always been the roadblock to reaching the next level in the playoffs. Despite those feelings, and while they may not like his personality, they still respect his ability. They know that in order to beat Miami, the biggest key of all is finding a way to slow James down.

"Just try to keep a body on him," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "Just try to frustrate him. It's hard to stop a guy like that. He is a superstar, phenomenal athlete. You just got to try and throw as many bodies as you can, try to force him to take the long-range jump shot. But it's going to take a whole team. We're just going to have to keep throwing bodies at him and stay down on the pump fakes."

There was no hesitation in Gibson's voice as he discussed the key to Sunday's game.

"Defense," Gibson said quickly. "Try to contain whoever they got out there. If it's D-Wade, if it's [Chris] Bosh, you never know. You never know who's going to play. They've got a ton of athletes on the bench, a ton of scorers. It's going to come down to will and defense. Both teams are good, strong defensive teams. We just got to take away their strong suits. But I think it's going to be a physical game."

Gibson and his teammates know that in order to pick up another win, they must start by staying on James at all times. They have always enjoyed the competition that comes with playing the league's best player.

And it cuts both ways.

Any time the Bulls and Heat play each other, the intensity is different on the floor. James doesn't like how physical the Bulls can be at times, but he respects how hard they play under Tom Thibodeau. He knows he'll have a challenge every time he hits the floor, and as a competitor, he appreciates that. He may not like Noah, but he respects the way he plays -- as evidenced by the pair working so well together in the fourth quarter of last week's All-Star Game.

The complicated relationship between James and Noah is one of the reasons this rivalry has been so much fun to watch over the last four years. After their verbal battle in Cleveland in 2009, James' Cavs ended up knocking out Noah's Bulls in the playoffs later that year. That summer, it was Noah, not Derrick Rose, who called James on the phone to try and recruit him to come to Chicago -- but he never got a call back. It was James, now with the Heat, who knocked out Noah's Bulls again in the 2011 playoffs, prompting Noah to utter a quote that will live in the annals of NBA history for the foreseeable future.

"Miami is a helluva team," Noah said after getting bounced in five games in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals by the Heat. "They're Hollywood as hell, but they're still very good. You've got to give credit when credit is due."

That credit always starts with James. He's the engine of a dominant Miami team, and the Bulls know it. They were reminded of that fact yet again during the 2013 playoffs where James once again helped the Heat knock off the Bulls in five games. Noah doesn't even like talking about James much in interviews anymore. He brushed off a question earlier this week regarding playing well with James in the All-Star Game, repeatedly saying, "Don't do that."

The respect for James' game is always there, but the disdain for what James represents never leaves Noah or the Bulls. He is the enemy, and likely always will be.

Noah is confident that the Bulls will be able to get past James at some point in the near future, and he has good feelings about picking up another win Sunday. But the reality for Noah's team is that seeing James will always serve as a reminder of what might have been.