DEERFIELD — With Derrick Rose’s return, an 8-0 preseason and an injury-riddled exhibition campaign behind them, the scene is set for Tuesday night’s Bulls’ regular-season opener in Miami.
Equipped with a full roster — both All-Star center Joakim Noah (groin) and veteran guard Kirk Hinrich (concussion, shoulder) are both expected to play, even if Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau continues to pretend as if there’s still a semblance of doubt — and facing the defending champions, entering a season in which they have title expectations themselves, the Bulls, at least outwardly, are treating the upcoming affair as if it’s business as usual.
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“Everyone’s chasing them. They happen to be the first game. Regardless of if it’s the first game or not, you have to be ready for everybody in this league. I think it’s important to establish your habits. What goes into winning is not any different no matter who the opponent is. They’re the defending champions. We know we have to play well to beat them. They’re not going to beat themselves. So we have to be ready for that challenge,” Thibodeau explained after Monday’s practice at the Berto Center.
“They’re going to test you in a lot of different ways. Their team is a very deep team. And they pose a number of problems. When you look at LeBron’s skill set and his ability to run the team, he can play with the ball or off the ball. You can never overlook [Dwyane] Wade. He’s a great, great player. He gives them another guy who can break you down off the dribble. They can post him. He’s a big-time scorer and playmaker. You look at [Chris] Bosh and he’s a tough matchup because of his skill set. Ray Allen is one of the all-time greats in the history of the game. [Shane] Battier and [Udonis] Haslem are big-time winners. They’re a well put-together team. [Mario] Chalmers has gotten better each year in the league. [Norris] Cole has really come on. They’re the two-time defending champion.”
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While his players weren’t quite as blasé about the matchup as Thibodeau, they reflected their coach’s business-like mentality.
“The beginning of the season is always tough, no matter who you’re playing. There’s a number of reason for it. Guys are just excited. Every team believes that they’re just as good as anyone at the beginning of the year. You’ve got guys that are trying to prove to their coach that they need more time, and some guys might be starting for the first time. So the first 20 or so games to me during the season, those are really tough games,” All-Star small forward Luol Deng explained.
“Every year at the beginning of the year, you have the belief that you can do it. Things happen during the year and you learn from them. I still think you are going to go through some things during the year. It’s not going to be everything is perfect every day. It’s just how we handle them and making sure we know it’s a long year. No matter what, just stick with it and belief in it all year.”
Former league MVP Derrick Rose added: “I’m looking forward to it, but I’m going to take it as any other game. It’s the first game. It’s the next game, of course, and we’re just trying to sharpen things up, play the same way and get our chemistry a little bit better.”
How Rose performs Tuesday will be obviously be of great interest, particularly because the last time he was healthy in the playoffs, the Bulls lost to the Heat — who eventually lost to Dallas in the NBA Finals before their current run of two consecutive titles — and it was perceived that with the aforementioned James defending him, the point guard could be shut down and his teammates couldn’t pick up the offensive slack.
“That’s part of what they do. If you watch what they did last year against point guards, it’s an option they go to. It’s a great weapon to have. We like to do similar stuff with Jimmy [Butler]. It’s just different,” Thibodeau said.
“[Rose] just has to run the team. It’s not about Derrick and LeBron. It’s about the Heat and the Bulls. It’s a team game. We expect him to do the right things.”
For his part, Rose isn’t fazed by the possibility of James guarding him and believes the Bulls’ growth in his absence has steeled them for not only Tuesday night, but far beyond.
“When you have a player like that and he’s a three, and he actually is switching off to stick me, we’ve just got to find ways to get guys open, take advantage of whoever they put on Luol and play real smart basketball because they would want me to force every shot up. But we’ve just got to play smart and find the mismatch,” the Chicago native explained.
“I think we’re a different team than last year. Of course they learned how to win games without me, but I think we’re a totally different team, where all the guys, they’re focused in, everyone knows their role and I told you this team is totally opposite, where every guy comes in. Even the rookies, they’re acting like professionals when they come in, so for us, we have a great chance to contend for a title.
“No disrespect to any of my old teammates, but it seems like we’re way more focused this year,” he continued, when asked if this Bulls’ roster was the most talented he’s had since starting his NBA career. “I think with the team that we have, we have a bunch of guys that’s trying to stay focused. Of course we have distractions with all the things we have to do because of the NBA, like the charity stuff and all that, but we’ve just got to make sure, like Thibs says, ‘that our house is in order.’ Make sure that we only have one goal, to push everybody every day.”
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Thibodeau expanded upon that message for the assembled media, but emphasized that his team’s actions will go a lot further than meaningless chatter before the regular season even begins.
“You can’t talk about it. You have to do it. You have to put the work into it,” the coach said. “There are 30 teams that are talking. I’m looking for the guys who are willing to commit to it. That involves a lot of work and sacrifice.”
For the Bulls, that begins Tuesday night.