MIAMI -- The prudent thing to say now, if you're the Chicago Bulls, is that the must-see NBA season opener against the champs was just one of 82, not a great crusade, not a statement game, not foreshadowing, not a hint of things to come, not a re-establishing of manhood or anything else grand ... but one measly game in an endless season.
Oh, there's no sugarcoating the result. It was 12 points, the Miami Heat victory, but so much more than that.
The Heat lead reached 25 when the champs -- having gorged themselves on fresh new bling and civic adoration -- essentially stopped paying attention, and the Bulls pulled, meaninglessly, within eight points after most people had left the building or fallen asleep.
The Bulls couldn't buy a shot for three quarters, committed too many turnovers against an aroused Miami defense, committed too many fouls (especially) and never got into the kind of offensive probing and execution they'll need if they're to actually challenge Miami in a playoff series.
Now, having said all that, so little of it matters to any great degree at this moment.
The Miami Heat wanted to put on an encore championship performance and take a bow. Check.
The Chicago Bulls needed to re-establish their star player, Derrick Rose, not in some purposeless dreck of a preseason scrimmage, but in a game that counted for something, against a team of consequence. Check.
We already know Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is angry as hell at his team having allowed 107 points, at committing 18 turnovers (that led to 15 of those Miami points), at allowing Miami to shoot 51 percent and, even worse, 55 percent from the 3-point line. And because the Bulls play such consistently great defense these are things they'll get better at over time ... like in the 48 hours before the home opener against the New York Knicks on Thursday night.
But none of that, in this moment, is as important as Rose exploding through the entire Miami defense and finishing with great extension with his left hand for a signature Rose layup. It didn't matter that Rose did that last week against the Milwaukee Bucks or Denver Nuggets in the preseason; it mattered that he did it tonight, in Miami, against opponents all too happy to knock his head off.
Did Rose do that enough to predict he'll be the 2014 MVP? No. Four-for-15 with five turnovers (to four assists) doesn't put you back on the All-Star team. But it was a start.
You could see Derrick Rose in there, in some of those moves, in the twisting layups and fearless drives to the basket against big bodies bumping and slamming him, which doesn't happen in the preseason. There was rust, yes, but this was the start of knocking it off, and probably an OK start because of the opponent.
"This was the toughest team he could have come back against," was the way teammate Luol Deng put it. "But I've seen Derrick at his best, and I know he's better than he was. His work ethic is better. His belief in himself and in his teammates is better."
The Bulls players don't talk about it much and don't really need to, but there is a belief that Rose is going to be better, because he's going to be tougher, because the fairy tale was shattered last year. As one player told me, "It's the first time Derrick was hated on."
He's been adored since high school, had one year in Memphis during which he reached the Final Four (to more praise), then was drafted first overall and was treated like the Golden Child, a savior for a franchise looking for one, and in disbelief that such a savior could come from among them. Then, because he didn't come back when a lot of people wanted, he heard the first boos, the first strains of criticism, of resentment, from the people who called the talk shows.
In other words, there are people in and around the Bulls who think Derrick Rose has been hardened, pretty much the way all great athletes become hardened, and it's going to serve them all damn well in time, Rose and the team.
There wasn't anything collegiate about the spirit of the locker room in defeat Tuesday night. There was resolve, a brand of steely-eyed analysis, particularly from the elders, Deng and Joakim Noah, about what has to be done now that they've seen Rose return to the floor with zero drama
Even Rose wasn't particularly concerned with that. Instead he was focused on Miami throwing the same defensive trap at him at the top of the court that Miami used to smother him in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals. First possession: Bam! Trap. Mario Chalmers and Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Bosh; Chalmers and LeBron James.
Wade and LeBron may have publicly welcomed Rose back to basketball with some very kind words, but they welcomed him back to this rivalry with the best trapping defense in the NBA. And the Bulls had about as much success with it early in Tuesday's game as they did in May 2011, which is to say none. Noah offered afterward, "When you trap that pick-and-roll, it's on [the rest of] us to get to our spots, make the right passes and then make the shots" -- none of which the Bulls did in this case.
And if the Bulls don't learn between now and April how to make the Heat pay for employing that trap, then the Bulls won't be able to beat Miami in the playoffs. And they know it. That's a significant development from the opener, and the Bulls know that, too.
Again, as Noah said afterward, "For a Game 1, Miami's execution was impressive. And our offense is not where we need to be. We've got to get to our fourth and fifth options against their defense. Against bad teams, we can score on our first two options. But against championship teams we've got to get to our third and fourth options, at least."
Part of the problem was that Deng, who NEVER gets in foul trouble, was in foul trouble from essentially the opening tap, as was Jimmy Butler. And the two-guard and swingman are absolutely necessary to breaking Miami's trap when they step out on Rose.
The line that mattered the most came from coach Thibs, who said, "Now, we begin the journey."
It's worth noting that Butler battled through the foul trouble to make five of his last nine shots and finished with not only 20 points but seven foul shots and five steals; that Carlos Boozer was unstoppable (31 points) and probably ought to be established earlier in games, especially if defenses are going to extend that far up top to attack Rose; that the Bulls outscored Miami in the paint (50-34), on second-chance points (16-5) and on fast-break points (17-10).
There was levelheadedness out of the Bulls as they headed home that one would expect from a really good team after disappointment.
Noah, who probably hates the Heat more than any of the Bulls, said, "Yeah, we wanted to ruin their party tonight.
"But the next time we play them we'll play a lot better."
He repeated, "We will play a lot better. We want to and need to beat Miami. You don't want to go around them, you want to go through them. We'll watch the film, we'll practice, we'll work. We'll get better."