DEERFIELD, Ill.—If Miami’s last two games—losses at Houston and San Antonio—are indicative of how the Heat are currently trending, then the Bulls might be catching the defending champions at the right time.
Odds are, however, that the perfect wake-up call for the brief losing streak is a road matchup with a team from whom they’ll be expecting a challenge after last month’s 93-79 drubbing in Miami, sans LeBron James. That defeat is still fresh in Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s mind as his squad prepares for the Heat, their guest Sunday afternoon at the United Center.
“Well, you’ve got to play 48 minutes against them. But in that game I thought we really played well against them in the first half. Third quarter, we’re up 50-49 with five minutes to go and then we didn’t close the quarter out well,” the coach explained after Saturday’s practice at the Berto Center, on the heels of a tough home loss Friday to Memphis, the first of six consecutive games in Chicago. “It ended up being a bad result. They’re the defending champion for a reason, so you’ve got to play against them.”
James, currently wearing a mask to protect the broken nose that caused him to miss the aforementioned game against the Bulls, is coming off a pair of subpar outings—at least for him; the reigning league MVP partially blamed the sleeved jerseys the Heat wore in the loss to the Spurs for his poor shooting performance—recently had a career-high 61-point effort against Charlotte. While one wouldn’t expect him to put such gaudy numbers against the Bulls’ vaunted defense, Thibodeau has a healthy respect for his abilities, saying that no player he’s coached against in his long NBA career has the same combination of basketball talent and physical attributes.
“Nobody. Because when you’re combing the speed, the power, the skill, the passing, the vision, I mean I can’t recall anyone that I’ve coached against that’s like that. There’s nothing he doesn’t do. He’s great with the ball, great without the ball, can post, can drive, can shoot, can really pass. If you overcommit to him he’s going to make you pay. And he keeps getting better every year. He’s an all-time great,” said Thibodeau, who ranked James’ strength as on a similar to power-forward legend Karl Malone.
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“You can put him in that class. Malone was obviously bigger but the way they’re built, that power and speed. Their skill set obviously is a lot different. But the power and the speed, that’s similar.”
As for the Heat as a whole, in light of their success in the “Big Three” era of James and All-Star teammates Chris Bosh and Chicago native Dwyane Wade, the coach acknowledged that Miami’s run is approaching a dynasty level of excellence.
“You could make a case for it certainly. They’ve got two championships, they’ve been to three Finals, so until someone knocks them off everybody is chasing them,” Thibodeau said. “In this league, you’re going to be challenged every day that you’re in it. It doesn’t matter who you are. Whether you’re a player, coach, executive, first-year player, 15-year player, it doesn’t matter, you’re going to be challenged. That’s what brings out the best in people. We’re looking forward to it. We know they’re tough on both ends of the floor and we have to be ready.
“You want your team to be ready for whoever they’re facing. Certainly, they’re the team you’re chasing. You’ve got to be ready to have the fight that’s necessary to succeed. I think that we were disappointed that we didn’t play 48 minutes against them. We know that’s necessary in order to win. Hopefully we can bring better effort,” he went on to explain.
“Understand what happened last night, make the necessary corrections, prepare for Miami. Obviously, we’re disappointed with the way we played last night but have got to get ready for the next one and whether you win or lose, understand why. You always have to concentrate on your improvement and know your opponent well.
“They’re coming off the Texas teams. And we have to be ready. We know they’ll be ready. So we have to be ready.”