MIAMI — It turned out that all of the emotion of being presented with championship rings for the second straight year trumped the drama of Derrick Rose’s first regular-season game since 2012, as the Bulls fell to the defending-champion Heat in their season opener Tuesday night at American Airlines Arena, 107-95, though they at least made what appeared to be an embarrassing blowout a semi-competitive affair late in the contest.
From the Bulls’ perspective, the outset of the contest lived up to the hype, after the visitors got rid of some early jitters — Rose (12 points on 4-for-15 shooting) was plucked clean from behind on the opening possession, leading to a Heat dunk, and the hosts’ pressure was a major factor to begin the contest — as the former league MVP’s ability to get to the basket and strong team defense helped create an early cushion, despite swingman Jimmy Butler (20 points) having to sit with two quick fouls.
“I’m back to playing the game that I love playing, against a great team. What other way to have it than playing against the champs? For this to be the first game for us, to have our chemistry already, it’s going to be a playoff atmosphere,” Rose said before the game, certainly not realizing what was to come. “[Miami] is going to test you in every way. Mentally, physically because that’s just the way they are. That’s why they’re champions. They jump on you. You’ve got to make sure you play almost a complete game through the whole 48 minutes.”
It’s unlikely Rose knew how prophetic his words would be by the end of the night.
Carlos Boozer (31 points, seven rebounds) was a major factor in the early going, as the power forward took advantage of Miami’s justified focus on Rose and even being a surprisingly active defensive presence. Meanwhile, the Heat superstar trio of LeBron James (17 points, eight assists, six rebounds), Chris Bosh (16 points) and Dwyane Wade (13 points) got off to a slow start, but the defending champions’ underrated role players kept things close and eventually seized the lead, courtesy of one of the Bulls’ trademark scoring droughts.
Perhaps more important than the score, however, was All-Star small forward Luol Deng, who had done a solid defensive job on James, picking up his third foul in the opening period, a result of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau letting him stay in the game after picking up his second early in the frame.
Trailing 17-15 heading into the second quarter, with Deng and Rose — Thibodeau rested him early, playing it cautious, and went with veteran backup Kirk Hinrich — on the bench, things didn’t look good for the Bulls, especially with an even more offensively-challenged second unit tasked with closing the gradually-growing gap. Butler, in for Deng, also picking up his third foul to quickly return to the bench, certainly didn’t help matters.
“I’ve been on both sides before, multiple times. I know exactly what they’re going through. We have to be ready with that anger and demeanor they’re going to come out with,” James said of the Bulls having to sit through the Heat’s pregame championship-ring ceremony, which delayed the start of the game. “It doesn’t matter who they put on the floor. You’re going to get a battle with them. No matter if there’s no Derrick, no Booz, no Luol, no Joakim, no Taj, no Butler, it doesn’t matter. No matter who they put on the floor, Thibs is going to make sure those guys compete. We know that. We don’t take them lightly no matter who is in uniform.”
Led by three three-pointers from veteran forward Shane Battier (14 points), the Heat’s bench dominated the Bulls’ reserves, allowing Miami’s lead to balloon to double digits. The home team’s torrid three-point shooting the Bulls’ near-complete offensive ineptitude resulted in a 17-0 Heat run, with Miami doubling up its guests.
Aside from Boozer, whose 19-point first half was all for naught, the Bulls struggled mightily to score, shooting 30 percent from the field and turning the ball over 12 times, leading to a 54-33 deficit at the intermission.
After the break, in front of the slow-to-return halftime crowd, the Bulls essentially traded baskets with their hosts, which was promising as far as demonstrating a semblance of offense, but didn’t do much to cut into the Heat’s commanding lead.
While the way the game was officiated clearly didn’t favor the Bulls — Deng picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter, on his second charging call of the contest, but the overall restrictive nature limited the visitors’ physical style of defense in general — Boozer remained the lone consistent offensive threat, though Butler made an impact in the transition game and All-Star center Joakim Noah (11 rebounds), though clearly suffering from a lack of timing after missing nearly the entire preseason, was effective as a rebounder.
Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls were unable to make much headway and were behind by a 20-point margin, 78-58, as Miami backups like Ray Allen (11 points) and Norris Cole (11 points) made up for a subpar night from Wade.
Bulls newcomer Mike Dunleavy Jr. (10 points), after a rough first half, made his presence felt in the fourth quarter and along with Butler and Taj Gibson (10 points, eight rebounds), helped trim the deficit to 12 points with just over five minutes remaining in the contest. By this time, Rose appeared to be done for the evening, but after Hinrich fouled out of the game, the former league MVP was reinserted for the stretch run.
With Butler taking a lead role, the Bulls made it as close as an eight-point game.
In the end, this even-keeled perspective of Rose’s might be the one that serves the floor general and his teammates best: “It’s the next game. That’s the way that we try to look at everything. No matter who we’re playing against, it’s the next game and it’s big because it’s the next game. That’s the way Thibs tries to program us. It works for us because it’s absolutely true.”
And now, it’s in the past, along with all the pomp and circumstance that came with it. Whether it’s just one meaningless game out of 82 or a potential harbinger of things to come remains to be seen, but with Thursday’s home opener against the Knicks looming, it can no longer be the focus of the Bulls’ attention.