Over the past couple days, Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and star Derrick Rose have said Sunday afternoon's nationally televised (ABC) game against the Miami Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena (at 2:30 p.m. CT) is just another game, just one tilt out of the compressed, 66-game regular season. Of course, the Bulls swept the Heat in last season's regular season, 3-0, only to suffer a five-game series defeat to Miami in the Eastern Conference finals.
"It's your next step, that's all," Thibodeau told the assembled media after Saturday's practice. "It's your next game. Every game reveals something to you."
Yet, essentially every player -- and every fan -- on each side knows that it is the first of many battles in 2011-12 and that the matchup has the makings of a deep-rooted, year-to-year rivalry. And over the past few seasons, Rose has seemingly always played his best in the most highly anticipated games, whether it is against another elite point guard or team.
Yes, the winner of this Jan. 29 duel will not be handed the 2012 NBA championship five months in advance. Although, given both the Bulls (17-4) and Heat (14-5) are regarded by many NBA followers as the primary favorites to win the title, there are statements to be made in their first clash.
Contrary to Thibodeau's mantra, let's just say that Saturday's game, which will be a homecoming of sorts for Bulls forward Carlos Boozer, who resides in Miami during the summer, will reveal more about both clubs than a typical regular-season game normally would.
It's a hard argument to make, that a game featuring the last two NBA MVP's, the 2006 Finals MVP, the reigning Coach of the Year, plenty of star power and the two best defenses in the league is simply one game on the schedule.
"It can," Heat star Dwyane Wade told reporters in Miami Saturday, when asked the possibility of Bulls-Heat being a rivalry. "We would hope that, that we're one of the top seeds for years to come. ... This has the makings of being [a rivalry]. The Chicago Bulls are a very good team. They're one of the best defensive teams in this league, make it tough on you, make you earn everything. We'd like to look at ourselves as being one of those teams as well. So, yeah, it can be [a rivalry] for years to come."
Added Bulls center Joakim Noah: "It's definitely a game that you circle on your calendar as soon as the schedule comes out."
The two teams still consist of the same stars, although the Bulls may be without both versatile forward Luol Deng and Rip Hamilton, who was Chicago's big free-agent acquisition early in training camp. During the shortened free-agency period, the Bulls lost enforcer Kurt Thomas and Keith Bogans, last season's starting shooting guard. For the Heat, team president Pat Riley added scrappy veteran Shane Battier, rookie guard Norris Cole -- whom the Bulls technically selected 28th overall in last June's draft -- and former Bull Eddy Curry to last season's 58-win squad.
"It'll be a little different, but the principles are the same," said Wade, who returned from a six-game absence on Friday night against the New York Knicks. "They live on their defense."
Thibodeau and his players have repeatedly said they can be in position to win any game as long as execute their defense, control the glass and take care of the ball. However, last spring the Bulls just couldn't score enough to topple the Heat, who received several clutch shots from LeBron James. Chicago's defensive-minded bunch surrendered an average of 89.4 points but put up a meager 87.2 per game in that series.
Although, this season the Bulls believe they have the ingredients to score consistently on the Heat's defense, especially when it matters late in games. At least that's what Rose and the entire 13-player roster, with Saturday's release of Mike James, spent the prolonged offseason working on, and that's why the Bulls brought Hamilton aboard.
With the internal development and signing of Hamilton, the Bulls are confident that they can reach the next level. But there are still some unanswered questions. Among them are: This time around, how will Rose, in crunch time, counter the bigger James' defense? Does Hamilton have enough left in the tank to give Wade a hard time on both ends of the court in a seven-game series? By all accounts, the Bulls' front line and bench should have given them a huge advantage last May, but will it come to fruition in 2011-12?
All of that remains to be seen. But one thing's for sure: Both teams have plenty of respect for each other and the enormous talent that will be displayed on the floor Sunday.
"Even though we wrapped it up in five, it didn't seem like it," Heat forward Chris Bosh told reporters in Miami, alluding to last season's series. "It seemed like it was a lot closer, which it was. They're a good basketball team. They're going to be around for a long time and every year I think if we want to get to where we want to go, we're going to have to beat those guys."
Said Bulls shooting guard Ronnie Brewer, who will make his 14th start of the season if Hamilton is not able to play: "LeBron, D. Wade, Chris Bosh, they're some of the best players at their position, respectively. So you've got to draw a game plan for each of those guys. Whenever you do that, you know guys are very talented ... so it's going to be a tough matchup for us, a tough battle. But I think our team's looking forward to it."
Last season, Thibodeau pumped his first after the Bulls' third straight victory over the Heat. While he has said his team will take it one game at a time, it's a safe bet that similar types of emotions will be exhibited at some point on Sunday. Thibodeau and Rose, among others, can downplay the first matchup between the two teams, and there will be three more this season, but Sunday's outcome will set the tone for the weeks and months to come.
"We're definitely looking forward to this game," Noah said. "It's going to be a good game. We're excited, worked hard today in practice and excited to go down to Miami."