- Nick Friedell, ESPN Staff Writer
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DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Tom Thibodeau has tried to convince his team that every game means the same. For the most part his players have actually bought into the theory, but there are certain games that mean a little more to the players.
That is certainly the case for Thursday's game against the Miami Heat.
As much as Thibodeau has tried to downplay any matchup against the team that beat the Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals last season, the players discuss pretty much every move the Heat make.
"I'd be lying to you if I said we don't," Bulls forward Luol Deng said Tuesday. “When they lose everyone wants to hit you up and tell you Miami lost. You hear it from everyone, and that's how it should be. They're the team behind us. It's not just because they're Miami, but whoever is right behind us. We're always going to be looking back because we want that spot."
The Bulls want this game for many reasons, but the biggest one is that with just eight regular season games left, a win on Thursday would all but lock up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. A win would give the Bulls a three-game lead in the loss column with just seven games to play. Although the Bulls didn't convert the No. 1 seed into a Finals berth last season, Deng still sees the top spot in the conference as a validation for working hard the past four months.
"Not just the homecourt, but it's also a credit to the season," Deng said. "I think you play so hard, you want the best record. With the injuries and everything, we've got guys that have stepped up, guys that have played hard. We want to have that record. You don't want to look back and see that all season you played so hard and you lost it."
As usual, Thibodeau tried to downplay the significance of a win over the Heat.
"All the games are the same," he said. "You treat them the same. You get ready the same way."
Deng wasn't the only Bull who admitted it is tough to treat this like any other game.
"It's going to be a fun game," guard Richard Hamilton said. "Any opportunity that you get to come out and compete, especially against one of the elite teams in the NBA, it's always going to be exciting. We just got to continue to worry about what we do, and we should be all right."
Thibodeau wants the Bulls to understand that no matter how well they've been playing, they're still not as good as the Heat until they prove they can beat them in a seven-game series. When a reporter inferred that the Heat were chasing the Bulls in the standings, Thibodeau objected.
"No, no, no," he said. "We're chasing them. They're the Eastern Conference champions. We're chasing them. That's the way we're looking at it. That's the reality of it."
A win over the Heat on Thursday could all but lock up the East's No. 1 seed.