The formula for beating the Heat is no mystery, at least not for the Bulls.
Tom Thibodeau's five principles -- rebounding, defense, inside-out offense, low turnovers and unselfish play -- obviously come into play, but so do some of his other tenets, such as floor balance, so as not to allow Miami's prolific transition game to get rolling, and being ready to play at the start of the game.
"When you’re playing them, you’ve got to play for 48 minutes obviously," Thibodeau said after his team's spirited practice Tuesday afternoon at the Berto Center, after which reporters were treated to a rotating one-on-one duel that included Derrick Rose. "You’ve got to protect the ball, you’ve got to be strong, you’ve got to defend and rebound. We’ve got to put a lot into it."
Sounds simple, but when dealing with a juggernaut, execution can be a challenge.
While the Bulls exploited the Heat's small-ball approach in an inspired early-January win in Miami, the tables were turned in last month's rematch at the United Center, in which the visitors cruised to an easy victory.
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Now, with the defending champions, winners of 27 consecutive games, rolling with no signs of slowing down in the foreseeable future, despite the close-knit nature of matchups between the two teams over the past few seasons, the odds of the Bulls putting the potentially-historic streak to a halt have decreased, particularly with the tenuous status of injured starters Marco Belinelli and Joakim Noah, suffering from an abdominal strain and plantar fasciitis, respectively.
"They’ve won 27 in a row. They’re not that vulnerable. They’re beating everybody right now. We’ve just got to come out with a great effort, play as hard as we can and let the chips fall where they may," Kirk Hinrich said, stating the obvious. "It’s an impressive streak. Obviously they’re playing at a very high level every night. That’s not an easy thing to do in this league."
Veteran center Nazr Mohammed, himself an owner of an NBA championship ring, added further perspective to the Heat's current run.
"Sometimes after championships, there’s a little bit of a letdown, there’s a little bit of fatigue that sets in. I experienced it after we won in ’05 [Mohammed was on the San Antonio team that won the 2005 NBA championship] and the season comes back around so quickly. But it’s impressive what they’re doing. They came right out of the gate ready to go and they’re rolling right now," he said. "That’s extremely impressive. The league is a grind, as everyone knows, so many games, back-to-back, injuries. To put together a streak when you win 27 consecutive games, in this league, to keep that level of focus, for that amount of time, is great.
It’s all about one game at a time," he added. "[Wednesday is] a totally new day and I know that once you start thinking about streaks, and you start thinking about the pot of gold at the end, you skip steps, so I hope they’re thinking about [tying the Lakers’ record 33-game winning streak] or whatever and we’re one of the steps they’re going to skip."
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But Miami's level of focus during the streak has been remarkable, particularly as the Lakers' 1971-72 season mark is approached. Through injuries to key players like All-Star Dwyane Wade -- the Chicago native sat out Monday's win in Orlando with a knee injury, but is expected to suit up Wednesday in his hometown -- the Heat continue to endure, partially due to depth added in the offseason.
"They’re having an unbelievable season. It says a lot about their character, to be the defending champion and come back like this, and everyone’s chasing them," Thibodeau said. "They have a lot of guys who can shoot the three. Ray Allen was a great pickup for them; Mike Miller and Rashard Lewis also playing. They’re playing very well in every aspect of the game. Their offense is terrific, they’ve always been an excellent defensive team. They play hard and they play together, so you have to play 48 minutes against them."
But while adding the likes of Allen, Lewis and key midseason addition Chris Andersen, an athletic, shot-blocking center who can run the floor and finish above the rim, have helped and the contributions of All-Star Chris Bosh, who has thrived as an undersized center, as well as role players like savvy forward Shane Battier, underrated point guard Mario Chalmers, rugged power forward Udonis Haslem and speedy reserve point guard Norris Cole, reigning league MVP LeBron James has clearly been the most integral piece.
Ever since the end of last season's Eastern Conference Finals, en route to winning the title, James has taken his already-rarefied game to another level, eliminating any debate as to who's the game's top player.
From the obvious -- improved three-point marksmanship, the willingness to play in the post, gaudy shooting percentages and embracing taking shots in the clutch -- to his more subtle brilliance, James has ascended to the top of the NBA throne, legitimizing his "King" nickname and forcing even rivals to acknowledge his status, albeit grudgingly.
"He’s having a great year. He’s a great player. It seems like he’s improved every year he’s been in the league and for him, that’s really saying something," Hinrich said. "You respect all your opponents. Absolutely. I think he plays the game the right way, plays hard. No question."
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Mohammed expressed a similar sentiment: "You have to give him his due. He’s one of the best players in this league, if not the best...6-8, strong, athletic, he’s knocking down shots, can pass the ball, handle the rock."
Thibodeau, a devout student of the game, praised James' playmaking ability, even in light of the "hard-fought games" the Bulls have waged against Miami during his tenure.
"I felt he was unfairly criticized early in his career because he’s so unique. He’s trusted the pass his whole life. If you put two on him, he’ll make the right play. He’s going to hit the open man. If his teammate makes the shot, everyone says how unselfish he is. If his teammate missed the shot, they’ll say he didn’t want to take it," the coach said. "I think he proved all the critics wrong. He’s shown each year he’s gotten better and better, so that’s a credit to him."
That doesn't mean Thibodeau views Wednesday evening's showdown in the same fashion as other observers, specifically the media.
Sure, he's concerned about the Heat, but only in the sense that the Bulls, who are jockeying for playoff position and striving for a measure of consistency amid their health issues in the process, would like to extend their own current winning streak to three straight contests, something more important to them than standing in the way of history.
"I think you guys get caught up in that more than we do. For us, it’s about improvement, playing our best going down the stretch and hopefully be as healthy as possible, and the important thing is to not get caught up in all the hoopla and to understand what goes into winning, and to stay focused on those things. A big part of that is knowing your opponent, coming out and concentrating, playing hard with an edge for 48 minutes," he explained.
"They all count the same. You get up for one game, you don’t get up for another; everyone’s capable of beating you. They have everyone’s attention obviously, but it’s not only the streak. They’re the defending champions; everyone’s chasing them. We know how good they are. We know how well we’re going to have to play."