MIAMI -- On paper, the Bulls’ conference-semifinals matchup with the Heat is a complete mismatch.
But as we’ve seen over the past three seasons, nothing is simple when it comes to these two rivals; things are never as simple as they seem.
“All the chatter, all that stuff, it’s really meaningless. What’s important is the work you put into getting ready, and then have great concentration and give maximum effort once the game starts. That’s what wins, whether it’s the regular season or the playoffs. All the hype and all that stuff, that’s all meaningless,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said before the team’s morning shootaround at American Airlines Arena, in advance of Monday night’s Game 1 of the series.
“There’s certain things that you have to do in every game to win, regardless of who the opponent is. I think the playoffs changes things somewhat because it’s the same team over and over and over again, and that’s where things get different and that’s the challenge. We know how good the Heat are, we know how they play, we know what they stand for and that’s the nature of the game when we play against them. They’re built on defense, rebounding, toughness. We’re built the same way and our games over the last three years have been all hard-fought battles.”
Despite the Heat being able to rest for more than a week since sweeping Milwaukee in the first round, the Bulls believe that they’ll be able to compete with the defending champions.
“This is the NBA playoffs, man, so you have to be ready all the time. You’re playing against the best, so we’ll see who is ready to go tonight, but we feel we’re capable regardless.’’ All-Star center Joakim Noah said. “The intensity is a little bit higher, a little bit more at stake than a regular-season game. It’s exciting.”
Thibodeau added: “You always want to make the best of whatever your circumstances are. The challenge for us is the quick turnaround. The challenge for them is coming off the rest. The important thing is to be ready when the ball goes up. … I just think you have to have the mental toughness when you’re facing adversity, to persevere and get through things, and I think as the season’s gone on, I think we’ve gotten tougher and we’re going to have to be at our best in this series.”
Former league MVP Derrick Rose, who hasn’t ruled out a return in the series -- although Thibodeau said he wouldn’t play in Game 1 -- chimed in about the perception that the Bulls don’t have a chance against Miami.
“This isn’t the first time. We’re used to it. We know it’s us against everyone now,” he said. “Nobody is giving us a shot. We just have to go out there and play hard. There’s no pressure on us so we’re good.”
However, the Bulls aren’t using their 2011 conference finals defeat at the hands of the Heat as motivation.
“No, that’s the past,” Rose said. “Right now, we’re just worried about right now, the present. We have a nice shot. I think our chemistry is coming along pretty good on both ends of the floor. And we’re playing good basketball.”
Noah concurred: “It was two years ago.”
Thibodeau added some perspective to the comparison, breaking down how Miami has evolved since then, his first year at the helm in Chicago.
“That’s gone now. We have to move on. Our mindset has to be right for the Heat. We have to be ready to go. We have to be physically and mentally ready. This is a great team we’re facing. Each day, you’re faced with new challenges. We have to be ready for this one. I thought it was a tough, hard-fought series. Each game came down, basically, to the last possession, with the exception of maybe the first one, so we know how good they are,” the coach explained.
“They’ve had more time, they’ve kept their core together and then I think the addition of Ray Allen and picking up [Chris] Andersen and also, even a guy like Rashard Lewis, who when they go down a guy, he’s been a great player in the league for a long time, as well. But Ray Allen, I think that pickup was huge for this team.
"[Andersen] just falls in line with the type of guys that they bring in. The shot-blocking, running the floor, defensive mindset, plays his role,” he continued. “I think his shot-blocking is huge, but then you have guys like [Shane] Battier and [Udonis] Haslem that are going to be stepping in and taking charges, so when you think about lane intimidation, you look at those things and they’re physical. The versatility of guys being able to play multiple positions. Battier can play two, three, four. [LeBron] James can play two, three, four.
“That’s the way the team was built and like I said, the thing about a guy like [Dwyane] Wade, too, if you overcommit your defense to one guy and focus in on LeBron, you can’t do this against this team. Wade, he’s an elite player in this league and he has been for a long time,” Thibodeau explained. “You have to constantly be aware of where he is. [Chris] Bosh has a very unique skillset because of his quickness and ability to shoot the ball. If you get up on him, he can go by you. You’ve got to play both his shot and drive. So they pose a number of problems.”
James, who on Sunday won his fourth league MVP award -- although he didn’t become the first unanimous winner in MVP history, as lone dissenter Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe voted for New York’s Carmelo Anthony and eloquently explained why Monday -- poses a unique problem for the Bulls, especially without All-Star counterpart Luol Deng in the lineup, as the small forward remains in Chicago for the time being, due to complications from a medical procedure last week.
“Well, the guy, he’s such a dynamic player. He can beat you with you with his scoring, he can beat you with his passing, he can beat you with his rebounding, and he can beat you with his defense. He’s a complete player. The guy plays huge minutes every night, competes on every play, doesn’t miss games. He’s a fierce competitor, but this team is a lot more than just LeBron,” Thibodeau explained.
“When you look at the makeup of the team and you look at Wade and what he’s done here, and of course Bosh and then you look at all the role guys—and when I say role guys, I mean it in a very complimentary way. They’re all tough-minded, winning-type players who fulfill their roles perfectly and you look at a Haslem, a Battier, Ray Allen’s been an elite star in this league for a long time. He’s a big shot maker late,” he continued.
“[Norris] Cole has been very impressive. Each year, he’s gotten better and better. So you’re looking at a team—the pickup of Andersen—they’re deep and they can shoot the ball, they can spread you out, they can crack you off the dribble. It requires your team to be tied together and not take any possessions off and that’s the way we have to approach it.”
[RELATED: Deng out for Game 1; remains in Chicago]