Bulls-Heat not just another game

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Bulls-Heat not just another game

MIAMI -- It's the biggest NBA game of the season! Its outcome will have implications that will be remembered in June!

For once, it's no exaggeration. Well, not completely.

Sunday's showdown between the Bulls and Heat is truly the NBA's most anticipated event of the season, at least thus far. But it's just another regular-season game.

Still, let's be honest: Chicago and Miami are the class of the East, and no disrespect to current league-best Oklahoma City -- or other West contenders, such as defending-champion Dallas, the two L.A. teams or even underrated Memphis -- but a game pitting the reigning MVP, Coach of the Year and what's regarded as the best defense in the business against the "Big Three" is as good as it gets for late January, especially in this lockout-shortened campaign. And Derrick Rose can downplay it, but all eyes will be on Biscayne Blvd. Sunday afternoon.

Since the last time the two squads faced off, in the Eastern Conference Finals, much of the personnel has stayed the same. However, the offseason moves made by the respective front offices have been impactful.

Role players were the Heat's focus, as veteran "three-and-D" specialist Shane Battier, rookie point guard Norris Cole and even former Bulls center Eddy Curry, a Chicago native, took their talents. Meanwhile, the Bulls opted for quality over quantity, acquiring Rip Hamilton to fill their void at shooting guard, the team's only addition since last season, now that the short stint of journeyman point guard Mike James, waived Saturday, is over.

While those moves will have some say in Sunday's result, a cursory analysis of the matchups and brief evaluation of the season to date reveals that many of the same questions from a year ago still exist. But whether LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can be simultaneously productive, Rose gets enough help from the highly-scrutinized big-man duo of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer or even if Luol Deng returns from torn ligaments in his left wrist is insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

For the record, Bosh was playing some of the best basketball of his brief tenure in Miami prior to Wade, who looked remarkably spry in Friday night's Heat win over the reeling Knicks, returning from a sprained ankle. Unfortunately for Bulls fans, James' issues in the clutch haven't yet against Chicago. And while there will likely be plenty of focus on Rose's approach and how the Bulls' big men play following their various struggles last spring, perhaps a more important aspect of the game will be how effective the Bulls' perimeter players -- such as Hamilton, who, like Deng, is a game-time decision -- are when Miami's defense inevitably collapses on Rose.

Regardless of whether the two teams are prohibitive favorites to face off again at the same juncture where they met last postseason, keep in mind that the Bulls swept last year's regular-season series over the Heat before bowing out in five games in the conference finals, an indicator that, game of the season or not, maybe less significance should be placed on an early-January affair. But boy, won't it be fun to watch?

Morning Update: Dwyane Wade comes up clutch in close win vs. Kings

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AP

Morning Update: Dwyane Wade comes up clutch in close win vs. Kings

Dwyane Wade gets a little help but saves the day defensively vs. Kings

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Dwyane Wade gets a little help but saves the day defensively vs. Kings

Dwyane Wade gets a little help but saves the day defensively vs. Kings

It was a gift and the Bulls weren't going to look it in the mouth as Dwyane Wade was poised to finish off another one of his sterling defensive plays with a breakaway dunk with the game tied and Arron Afflalo and DeMarcus Cousins trailing.

Lightly touched by the small of his back by Cousins, Wade miscalculated his liftoff and missed the dunk but was bailed out by the refs for a foul with 14 seconds left.

Then, he bailed the Bulls out.

Wade had his fifth fourth-quarter defensive play, stripping Cousins on a steal on the ensuing possession with the Sacramento Kings having a chance to win, leading to a Michael Carter-Williams dunk and finishing a 102-99 win Saturday night at the United Center.

It was a clock-turning performance for Wade on both ends of the floor, even if his missed dunk is a reminder that he is 35 years old. 

"I took off too far as I look at the instant replay," Wade said. "I should've took maybe one more dribble. Can't say I felt 35, I just took off too far (laughs). But hey, sometimes you get calls, sometimes you don't. I'm a person who hasn't gotten a lot all year so I'm not gonna apologize for nothing."

Stripping Cousins on his spin move was the finale, but he swatted an Arron Afflalo corner triple in the fourth, smothered Ty Lawson at the rim twice for blocked shots to end the third and tortured Lawson again in the fourth for another steal that led to him following up a Jimmy Butler missed layup with a follow and foul.

"Just a read," said Wade on stripping Cousins. "We knew he was gonna go to DeMarcus at that point. Once we forced him left, I knew he had to come back to the right hand. And being in the right place at the right time, the ball was right there for me."

Wade played like a desperate and motivated man, putting up 30 with six rebounds and four assists on the second night of a back-to-back is proof positive he took Friday's loss to Atlanta personally and used his play to back up those feelings.

He took to twitter to apologize for the poor effort against the Hawks, producing his best all-around performance as a Bull.

"We've been good in desperate moments," Wade said. "We haven't been good in non-desperate moments, when we win three in a row or playing a team that we should beat. But (in) the desperate moments I like us."

He scored 13 in the fourth, along with the last of his four blocked shots and all three of his steals took place in the final 12.

"I thought he was terrific," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "He was aggressive all game long, taking the ball to the basket, getting to the line 15 times. He came up with two big plays."

Hoiberg threw out different lineups and rotations, playing Paul Zipser as a sixth man and having the second-round draft pick close the game. Zipser took advantage, hitting three triples and scoring 13 points.

"I thought it was night and day from last night," Hoiberg said. "Our energy was really good all night long. We got just enough stops to find a way to win."

Cousins dominated the game with 42 and 14 rebounds in 35 minutes, the only Kings player in double figures all night.

"He was pretty much unguardable for the majority of the game, Taj did a solid job on him," Hoiberg said. "When Robin was on him, they put him on the perimeter and let him shoot threes. He's a monster."

Back-to-back triples from Cousins gave him 40 and tied the game at 97, as a third one rimmed out with a little under two minutes left.

Cousins dominated the start of the third quarter, hitting midrange jumpers over Lopez and taunting the Bulls bench after hitting a jumper to put the Kings ahead, 70-63 midway through the third.

But the Bulls stayed close, with Hoiberg choosing to sit Rajon Rondo for the second half after playing him six minutes in the second quarter, using Wade as a point guard and going with Carter-Williams for defense, along with Zipser, who didn't look scared of the moment.

"I like the wrinkle coach put in there, putting him in early," Wade said. "He gave him an opportunity and he helped us big time."

Butler scored 23 with seven assists and five rebounds in 39 minutes, didn't have to play the hero for once and made fun of Wade's apology tweet.

"He was due for a big night," Butler said. "He can tweet again if he can come out again and give us 30 and some big steals and big dunks."

"I think that's what called of him, to score baskets and guard. It's kinda sneaky. You never really expect it until it happens."

It looked like the worst was over when the Bulls made a short run to end the third, surviving the onslaught from Cousins — and surviving their own experimenting with Zipser instead of going with Denzel Valentine, switching things up altogether.

But the tone was set by the leaders, who can only manufacture but so much urgency on a nightly basis.

"I like this team when we're desperate," Wade said. "A desperate team, we're not bad."