Posted Apr 12 2012 11:16AM
CHICAGO -- The urgency comes neither from the standings nor the seedings. It has nothing to do with any short-lived bragging rights, which will dutifully be revved up again seven days later to the same insignificant end. It has even less to do with Charles Barkley's over-the-air musings ("I like Chicago better").
It won't be team against team Thursday night at the United Center as much as it will be team within team. As in, the Chicago Bulls vs. the Chicago Bulls and, likewise, the Miami Heat vs. the Miami Heat.
Both these teams have a lot of questions to answer before they go around asking them of anybody else. Are you good enough? Are you ready? Will you be better than you were a year ago or maybe, somehow, worse? The Bulls and the Heat still need to stand in front of their respective mirrors when they wonder those things, never mind the toe-to-toe across 96 minutes that will be going on, first, on the west side of Chicago Thursday night and then down in south Florida next Thursday.
"Who ya got?" matters less in these two games than what they've got heading into the playoffs. Were it technologically possible, the two head-to-head clashes in prime time would be televised split-screen, the Bulls and the Heat competing against themselves before they're truly ready six or seven weeks from now to compete against each other.
"They're big games," Chicago guard Kyle Korver said. "But last year we swept them in the regular season but we lost in the playoffs. So it is another game. It's a game we want to win, obviously, but ... "
But the Bulls can't honestly say they are a better team at the moment than they were last spring, when Miami snatched four straight from them to take the Eastern Conference finals in five games. They have more experience, sure, and the chip that got planted on their shoulders with that elimination. Yet Richard Hamilton, the lone bullet fired from general manager Gar Forman's and VP John Paxson's gun in an attempt to boost the team's attack and lessen Derrick Rose's load, has as many doubters as the Warren Commission's single-bullet theory.
The 18 points Hamilton scored in the third quarter against New York Tuesday were a glimmer of something good, but hardly convincing next to the 37 games the veteran swingman has missed with groin, thigh and shoulder injuries. Then there is Rose himself, who wasn't enough to thwart Miami playing at his absolute Most Valuable peak, and now lugs the rust and uncertainty of 23 missed games and four injuries (toe, back, groin, ankle) into whatever is left of Chicago's season.
Need we remind people that in 1995, a solid Bulls team featuring Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc and Phil Jackson added Michael Jordan for the final 17 games and it was too late -- Jordan's rust from the first of his three retirements was too great, and the Bulls couldn't get out of the East. Rose & Co. have eight games before things get really intense, especially if their 1-8 or 2-7 matchup to start is with the Knicks or Sixers rather than the Bucks.
The Heat, meanwhile, can't honestly say they are a better team than they were last year, either. Miami's roster seems as top-heavy as ever, its reserves as random and unsettled as last year. Norris Cole, as an option at point guard, is a promise from winter that hasn't been kept this spring. Mike Miller is due back from something or other for about the 18th time in 18 months. Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Erick Dampier, meet Eddy Curry and Dexter Pittman, ballast on the bench.
The saturation coverage of LeBron James', Dwyane Wade's and Chris Bosh's every waking move has abated, but the pressure to produce will return in all its demanding glory come the postseason. Bosh hasn't had a double-double since the All-Star break. These guys are 10-1 without Wade. They're better (15-5) when James doesn't lead them in scoring than when he does (25-11). And so on.
Also, the same rigors that have tested and broken other teams in this post-lockout season have gotten to the Heat. Miami is 16-12 on the road. It is just 5-5 in its last 10 games, even with seven off-days sprinkled among them. And the Heat's fast-break looks a little broken: Over those 10 games, opponents have had the edge in transition seven times, outscoring the Heat 106-89 overall.
"You just cannot allow them to get out and run," Korver said. "If you do, it's just disaster, because they've got a couple of the best athletes in the world. They're so great at playing the passing lanes, getting steals or getting a long rebound and running out, and that really fuels everything else that they do. And they know that."
Except that in two of the most rattling recent losses -- to Boston April 1 and again Tuesday -- Miami lost 27-17 in fast-break points. And you have to assume that Celtics coach Doc Rivers and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, a former Boston assistant, occasionally chat.
Joakim Noah, the Bulls center with a history of sometimes saying the incendiary thing, was on his best behavior the other night. Asked about the Heat, Noah just grinned and said: "They're very good. And it's always exciting. They play hard. It's a big game. Y'know? It's a big game."
Then he added: "People remember the season on what happens in the playoffs."
So it's a big game for both the Bulls and the Heat, this one and next week's. A big game for what they learn and fix about themselves.
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