- Nick Friedell, ESPN Staff Writer
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As the Bulls prepare for their season-opening matchup against the Lakers on Christmas Day (4 p.m. CT on ABC), ESPNChicago.com's Nick Friedell counts down the wait with a daily look at Derrick Rose and Co. Kicking things off: What is the biggest storyline facing the Bulls this season?
CHICAGO -- Tom Thibodeau detests looking too far into the future, but he isn't stupid. The Chicago Bulls’ hard-driving coach knows that no matter what his team does this season, it will all come down to one thing: Can they beat the Miami Heat in a seven-game series?
After rolling through the regular season and earning a league-high 62 wins, the Bulls chugged into the Eastern Conference finals and steamrolled Miami in Game 1. But that was the high point of the season. From there LeBron James and the Heat ramped up their defensive pressure on Derrick Rose, and the Bulls didn't have an answer. Rose, the NBA MVP, looked worn down throughout the series and had to deal with constant double and triple teams. The Bulls, who won all three regular season games against the Heat, didn't have another answer offensively, and it showed. Miami won the next four games and advanced to the NBA Finals before losing to the Dallas Mavericks.
"Miami has a great defense," Thiboodeau said Sunday. "And if you study all eight games, every one of the games is a hard-fought game. Each possession is a war. And those games are probably going to be low-scoring games. In the end, it usually comes down to one or two possessions, so making a big play at the end of the game [is crucial].
"But it's not only Miami. You have to prepare for everybody."
But the playoff version of the Heat proved to be the Bulls’ roadblock last season. The Bulls were hampered by injuries in the series. Carlos Boozer, who figured to be a reliable No. 2 scoring option for the Bulls, had a turf toe injury and was mostly ineffective in the series. Joakim Noah, the anchor of the Bulls’ defense, was plagued by an ankle injury and foul trouble. All the momentum the Bulls built during the season was crushed by Miami’s defensive pressure.
The Bulls have to hope things will be different this season.
They are in an arms race with Miami. The Heat made the first move last week by signing veteran swingman and defensive standout Shane Battier. The Bulls are expected to sign veteran sharpshooter Richard Hamilton, who was waived by the Detroit Pistons on Monday, in the next day or two. The Bulls believe that with a healthy Boozer and Noah they will be much better equipped to knock off James an Co. And they will count on Hamilton to take some offensive pressure off Rose.
"The goal is to win the championship," Rose said on Sunday. "And if it takes me being in the gym for numerous hours, I'm willing to do it. I think that's what pushed me this summer, really working on my conditioning."
Rose knows there are doubters about the Bulls’ chances against the Heat.
"We hear everything," Rose said. "We're just like [the media]. We hear and see everything. And I know that's just going to push us. We had the No. 1 record in the NBA last year. I guess people forgot that. But if anything, I know that it's going to make us go out there and play even harder."
If the Bulls can’t find a way to beat the Heat, none of their accomplishments this season will matter. The Bulls are no longer the underdog team that came out of nowhere to win an NBA-best 62 games. They now have a bull’s eye on their back every night.
They must prove capable of taking the next step against Miami this season. And no matter how much he tries to spin the message in the next four months, Thibodeau knows it.
Countdown to Christmas: This season's rallying cry -- beat the Heat.