MIAMI, Oct. 31, 2006 – Didn’t see that one coming, did you? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

“I didn’t see anything coming like this,” Miami Heat coach and President Pat Riley said after his team dropped its season opener, 108-66. “But it came and it’s gone, thank you. So, now we can move on.”

Maybe the Heat players and coaching staff would like to move on, but we have questions to ask after the defending champions got whacked by 42 points on the night the championship rings were handed out.

Questions like, has the regular season started already? Is the Heat cooked? Are the Bulls just that much better with Ben Wallace and Co. joining the already-playoff-caliber team?

Yes, folks, the regular season has, in fact, gotten underway, despite what you may have thought if you tuned in to the season's first game to witness the Bulls lay a beating on the defending champion Miami Heat the likes of which no other defending champ has ever had to experience. The losing margin far surpasses the previous-high 15 points the 1982 Lakers dropped their first contest by to the Golden State Warriors.

But it’s just one of 82, as both teams will remind us and the Heat is known to start slow, winning games when it matters most, as it did in last year’s title run. So, maybe this loss isn’t really a cause for alarm.

“We’ll get to work tomorrow,” Riley said, pushing aside tonight’s result. “We’ve got New Jersey and Philly this weekend. Whether or not this is an eye-opener – I’m sure it is – and how the players deal with it, we have to find a way to handle that activity.”

That activity Riley refers to is what turned this into a one-sided affair: the Bulls hustle and energy at both ends of the floor. While, for the most part, the team plays the same as the one Heat saw for six games last spring, Riley did notice one distinct difference.

“They do not try to post anybody out. They’re a running, pick-and-roll, drive-and-kick team. That’s their game. They shoot the hell out of the ball. What I do notice that’s different about them, and I did see it during the preseason, is they’re putting their head down and going to the basket a lot more than they did last year. Last year they settled for a lot for jumpers. So that’s an improvement thus far.”

But when will Riley see improvement in his squad and just how will the Heat’s aging veterans respond, not only tomorrow but the remainder of the season, as the rest of the league takes aim at the champs and looks to deliver yet another crippling loss? It’s a question the local media was asking as early as this morning, suggesting the Heat doesn’t want a title the way it did only a few short months ago.

Tonight, the Heat looked like anything but an NBA champion, turning the ball over 23 times, which the Bulls converted into 32 points, getting out-worked on the boards 49-29 and shooting only 38.5 percent for the game, including three-of-17 from beyond the arc.

If Riley, recently -- and unofficially -- anointed by NBA General Managers as the top coach and best motivator, can’t find a way to rally his team and get back the hunger, a different team will be raising a banner and slipping on jewelry come this time next year.

By the looks of things tonight, it just might be this scrappy Bulls team. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, there are still 81 games to go.

BIG BEN: FOR WHOM THE BULL TOLLS

You already know the Bulls didn’t ink Ben Wallace to a deal because of his offensive skills, that much was evident midway through the third when Wallace missed two point-blank attempts. He went two-of-five on the night, for five points. But he does, in fact, help you at that end of the floor. Witness his six offensive boards in the game. As a team, the Bulls were active on the glass, pulling down 13, but it was Wallace leading that effort, whether grabbing his own afore-mentioned miss or scrambling to the free throw line to track down a long carom.

On defense, it was more of what you’ve come to expect from Wallace night in and night out. Many will point out that the Bulls were already the league’s best defensive team as far as opponents’ field goal percentage is concerned, but Wallace changes the game in a number of other ways. Tonight, it was second chance points – two for the Heat – and points in the paint – 26. Shaq, alone, used to get more than that.

Speaking of Mr. O’Neal, Wallace again played him tough the times the two were matched up, gaining traction against the big man with his familiar stance and lean to keep O’Neal from setting up in the paint. His biggest defensive stop came as the Heat mounted a third-quarter rally, cutting the lead to 23 points. As O’Neal got the ball down low, looking to throw down a dunk and get the home crowd back into the game, Wallace went up strong for the block but instead found skin. With the by-then thinning crowd silenced, the Bulls would again open the gap and cruise to victory.

“It’s just one game,” Wallace cautioned afterward, downplaying the final margin. “If we could take a couple of those points and add them to another game, then that would be different. But it’s still one game.”

WELCOME TO THE NBA, KID

Sure, if you tuned in to catch even the first quarter of tonight's game, you might think the regular season didn't start until tomorrow. That's understandable, given Chris Quinn, an undrafted rookie out of Notre Dame, was on the floor for four of the first 12 minutes.

In fairness, Quinn looked serviceable at times and, until Jason Williams is back in action, will get his share of minutes at the point backing up Gary Payton. Quinn struggled to produce much of anything on the offensive end, finishing the game with two points on one-of-five shooting to go with three assists in 14 minutes, but was aggressive on the perimeter at the other end of the floor.

Not bad for a youngster who nearly was let go earlier in the week. Riley, however, earlier said the decision to keep Quinn on the team was predicated mostly on need, given the team's short comings in the backcourt.

On the other side of the ball, another rookie, first-rounder Tyrus Thomas, got his big break in the NBA, although it's one he might rather forget. With 7:43 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Bulls up big, Thomas caught a James Posey forearm square in the kisser, sending him to the hardwood clutching his face. A few moments later, an in-arena announcement was made paging the team doctor to the Bulls' locker room.

“That’s a good story to tell,” Thomas joked, tape covering the injured facial feature, “first game, first broken nose. Welcome to the life, young fella.”

The injury, however, wasn't the result of the player trying to make the most of limited minutes in garbage time. Thomas got considerable burn early in the game for the Bulls, coming up with five rebounds, two blocks, a steal and four points on the night. He had all the appearances of a first timer on the court, all herky-jerky like any young player who knows he could be benched at any given moment. But Thomas' athleticism and length will find him plenty of opportunities on this team.

“I think I did fairly well,” Thomas said of his first real NBA experience, “just being active, executing on both ends of the floor and just being focused the entire time I was out there, unlike the preseason when I had spurts where I was focusing and spurts when I wasn’t. But I think I stayed focused for the majority of the time out there today.”

Thomas has a little time to focus on his first NBA game, because there’s no timetable for when the second will come until after he meets with doctors and gets fitted with a face mask.