Chicago Bulls: Miami Heat
CHICAGO -- LeBron James is the best basketball player on the planet, and the Chicago Bulls would be wise to get in front of him again and make their best recruiting pitch just like they did four summers ago.
But that does not mean they should lose focus on what should remain their ultimate prize this summer: Carmelo Anthony.
As fans consider the possibility -- however small it may be -- of James pairing up with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, remember that James passed on the chance to do the same thing in the summer of 2010. And that was before Rose had two serious knee injuries that caused him to miss the vast majority of the past two seasons.
The Bulls are in a better place than they were that summer four years ago thanks to the rise of Tom Thibodeau as one of the best coaches in the league, the development of Taj Gibson and the elevation of Noah to an All-NBA center and the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year.
But if James wasn't going to tie his professional future to Rose back when Rose didn't have any knee problems, why would he change his mind now? It's a question that hovers over every recruiting pitch the Bulls will make this summer to James and other players throughout the NBA.
The interesting dynamic of the Bulls' courtship history of James is that while he has always been respectful of the way Chicago has played under Thibodeau, he never responded to Noah's overtures about coming to play in the Windy City.
"I did not talk to LeBron," Noah told ESPNChicago.com in August 2010. "I reached out to LeBron. I think of course he's a great player, and I wanted to win, and he would have definitely helped. That being said, he did not reach back out to me. He did not want to talk to me, which is fine. I really don't give a [crap] at all. I really don't care. I think we have a really good team and we're going to be ready to compete against the Miami Heat."
The Bulls have had some intense games with the Heat over the past four years and have been bounced out of the playoffs by Miami in two of those seasons. They should do everything they can to speak to James and talk to him about playing for Thibodeau, a coach he respects.
But the front office can't lose focus on Anthony. He is the player the organization has targeted for months, and he is the player who likely gives the Bulls the best chance to topple James, wherever he may land. While it's no sure thing that Anthony lands in Chicago -- he might even team with James somewhere else -- he is a much safer bet than James when it comes to playing for the Bulls at this point.
James had the chance to play for the Bulls and turned it down. What makes this time any different?
Four summers ago, Heat team president Pat Riley outsmarted everyone in the league by finding a way to get LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Miami to play alongside Dwyane Wade. Now, it's Carmelo Anthony the Heat have focused their recruiting sales pitch on heading into the summer, according to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein.
Players like Chicago, appreciate the core of tough-minded players Bulls executives Gar Forman and John Paxson have put together, and they respect coach Tom Thibodeau. But in the end, they always find another place to land.
In this case, it appears more likely than ever that Anthony will either take a max contract to stay with his current team, the New York Knicks, or take less money to join up with his good friend James in Miami.
Why would he take less money to play for the Bulls if he could take less and play for the Heat, who have gone to four straight NBA Finals? Why would he come to Chicago and hitch the rest of his professional prime to Derrick Rose when he could play with the best player on the planet in James? Anthony could always decide to stay in New York, given the Knicks can offer him more money than any other team.
The whole scenario must feel a little like Groundhog Day to Forman and Paxson. They've been through this cycle. A superstar player talks openly about how much they respect the Bulls, only to sign elsewhere. As my colleague Tom Waddle likes to say: "You can't force a player to take a team's money." The Bulls have learned this lesson the hard way.
No matter what happens in the coming weeks, it seems the chances are smaller than ever that Anthony comes to Chicago next season.
So what do the Bulls do next?
If Anthony is truly out of the picture, they must focus all of their efforts on landing Minnesota Timberwolves big man Kevin Love. While Love's presence wouldn't put the Bulls past the Heat on paper, it would give them the next best chance to contend for a title. As long as the Bulls don't have to give up Joakim Noah, every other player should be available to Minnesota for the taking.
But the issue for the Bulls in landing Love remains similar to that of Anthony. Nobody knows exactly what is on his mind. Only Love knows if he would be willing to sign an extension in Chicago -- a fact that is crucial in any potential deal. The Bulls, like many teams, won't give up many of their assets only to see Love walk in a year.
If Love doesn't land in Chicago, the Bulls are in even bigger trouble. Forman would likely push harder to land European star Nikola Mirotic, but Mirotic isn't the type of superstar talent who would push the balance of power like Anthony or Love would. The Bulls would try to sell fans on the fact that Rose is coming back and they can add two draft picks to a solid group of players, but fans will see straight through that.
The NBA has always been a players' league, a place where superstar talent wins out more often that not. The reality for the Bulls is that they still don't have enough of it to compete for a championship. Yet again, it appears that Miami might beat them in the high-stakes game of free agency, whether Anthony ends up playing with the Heat or not.
"Nobody," Thibodeau said.
"Because you're combining the speed, the power, the skills, the passing, the vision. I can't recall anyone that I've coached against that's like that. There's nothing that 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 really pay. And he keeps getting better every year. So he's an all-time great."
Thibodeau always talks about how the Bulls must play team defense against a player like James. But the reality, as the veteran coach knows, is that it's much, much easier said than done as his team once against gets set to host James and the Heat on Sunday afternoon. James is the best player in the world, and he can take over the game virtually whenever he wants.
The Bulls saw that again firsthand a couple weeks ago when they got throttled by the Heat in the second half of a game they would go on to lose. The performance infuriated Noah so much that he called out his entire team and the way the Bulls played. No matter how many times Thibodeau might try to downplay a matchup against the Heat, Noah and his teammates understand that these games always mean a little more.
"When we play the Miami Heat, our intensity has to be through the roof for 48 [minutes]," Noah said after the loss Feb. 23. "Regardless [if] shots are going in or not. Of course you want to win the game, but the way we're going to win is our edge -- our intensity has to be better than theirs throughout the game."
The fact that Miami has knocked out the Bulls in two of the past three postseasons is not lost on Thibodeau or his players. He liked the fire with which Noah spoke after that game, but he has always believed that actions speak much louder than words.
"You got to be ready to have the fight necessary to succeed," he said. "I think that we were disappointed that we didn't play 48 minutes against them. And we know that that's necessary in order to win. So hopefully we can bring better effort."
Effort isn't the only thing the Bulls will need Sunday. They need better execution as well. They've won 10 of their past 13 contests, but if they don't find ways to score and make the effort plays that have defined them under Thibodeau, James will find ways to break them down as he has done in the past. Thibodeau acknowledged that a case could be made that the Heat are a dynasty, having played in three consecutive NBA Finals and won two titles in a row.
The key for his team is to find the intensity that was missing in Miami. In order to do that, the Bulls must find a way to slow down James and stay in front of him. It's an assignment that Thibodeau hopes his team is ready for against the best player -- and the best team -- in the game.
"That's the challenge," he said. "In this league you're going to be challenged every day that you're in it. It doesn't matter who you are, if you're a player, coach, executive, first-year player, 15-year player -- it doesn't matter. You're going to be challenged and that's what brings out the best in people. So we're looking forward to it. We know they're tough on both ends of the floor and we got to be ready."
"We've found that out, and we've lost games where it looked like we shouldn't have lost to them. In the 27-game winning streak, I don't think no one thought we were going to lose that one, but we did. They're a very tough team. They play the game 100 percent all out. Those are gratifying wins [against the Bulls], no matter who's on the court, with the way that they play, when you can beat them."
The Heat snapped the Bulls' five-game winning streak, but Chicago remains in control of the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference with a 29-26 record.
The Bulls and Heat have shown a disdain for each other over the years because of the physical style of play that comes with each game. But it's clear that both sides enjoy the challenge of playing against each other and the level of competition that it brings out each time.
Bulls center Joakim Noah was upset by his team's effort against its biggest rival.
"I don't care about missed shots," Noah said after the loss. "When we play the Miami Heat, our intensity has to be high the whole time. To me, that's what's disappointing. We play the Heat -- those guys ended our seasons a lot. You've got to hate playing these guys, and our intensity has to be, every time we play them, our intensity has to be high. We did it in spurts. It wasn't good the whole time, and that's what's disappointing."
Are the Bulls the most frustrating team in the league to the Heat?
"I don't know," Wade said. "They make you think a lot. They're going to make you think. They play hard, so I don't know if it's the most frustrating or not. Obviously, in the Eastern Conference we play them four times a year, so we've got opportunities to see them more than some other teams, but they're a tough team no matter whether we play them in Miami, we play them in Chicago, we play them in Alaska. Anywhere we play them they're going to be a tough team."
Having knocked the Bulls out of the playoffs twice in the past three seasons, Wade knows that whoever faces the Bulls in the playoffs is going to have a challenge on their hands.
"They're going to fight," he said. "They're going to battle. We've played them multiple years in the playoffs. Whether it's five games, seven games, they're going to take a lot out of you, but that's the nature of the game. So whoever has to play them, you've got to have your hard hats on. They're not going to make it easy on you at all. No matter who's in the lineup for them, they're going to go out and give it their all.
"A lot of nights, their all is good enough to win games and to compete and get a chance to win. So it's always going to be a tough series for whoever faces them."
"I don't care about missed shots," Noah said. "When we play the Miami Heat, our intensity has to be high the whole time. To me, that's what's disappointing. We play the Heat -- those guys ended our seasons a lot. You got to hate playing these guys, and our intensity has to be, every time we play them, our intensity has to be high. We did it in spurts. It wasn't good the whole time, and that's what's disappointing."
Although most don't like to say it publicly, Noah and his teammates always use a matchup against the Heat as a litmus test in regards to how they're doing in a particular season. They respect the way the Heat win, but they can't stand the group led by James, particularly Noah. The Heat have proven to be the Bulls' kryptonite season after season -- and Noah is sick of dealing with the same problem. That's why he was stewing in front of his locker as his teammates walked in and out of the shower. He's not sure why they weren't ready to play against Miami, but he doesn't believe in any kind of excuse.
"I'm frustrated about the game right now," Noah said. "I feel like we could have definitely played a lot better. When we play [the] Miami Heat, our intensity has to be through the roof for 48 [minutes], regardless [if] shots are going in or not. Of course you want to win the game, but the way we're going to win is our edge. Our intensity has to be better than theirs throughout the game."
How it happened: Carlos Boozer finished with 27 points and nine rebounds to lead the Bulls. Taj Gibson had another big game off the bench, going off for 19 points and six rebounds. LeBron James led the Heat with 21 points and five rebounds but the Bulls stuck it to Miami early and never let up.
What it means: When fans hear teams, especially the Bulls, say that every game is just one in an 82-game season, they shouldn't believe them. This was the most energy the Bulls have played with since Derrick Rose went down. It wasn't hard for Joakim Noah and his teammates to get up for a game against their hated rival. The key for Tom Thibodeau will be to try and find a way to get his team to continue playing this way. They have not been consistent since Rose went down, but maybe this game will help them get out of their funk.
Hits: Noah played his best game in several weeks. He was active on both ends of the floor, scoring 17 points and pulling down 15 rebounds.
Misses: The Heat got outworked most of the night -- second-chance points: 24-6 Bulls.
Stat of the night: The Bulls outrebounded the Heat 49-27.
What's next: The Bulls face the Detroit Pistons on Saturday night.
"For sure, man," Rose said. "It's not the end of the world. This will be easily forgotten. Of course we'll look at film (Wednesday), and (Thursday) we play against another great team."
"You can just tell by their offensive execution," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "It's very fluid. Defensively, they have a system that's in place. Everybody knows what they're doing."
Then Noah turned almost defiant. He was emphatic that this game would not define his team. He knows that he and Rose still have some rust to shake off, but he is also convinced that the Bulls won't play that poorly against the Heat again.
"I think the potential for us is crazy," Noah continued. "It's tough to lose to this team. We obviously want to beat them. We wanted to ruin their party tonight but it didn't work out that way. Next time we play them, we will play a lot better. We will be a lot better."
When the Bulls face the Miami Heat on Tuesday night it will mark the culmination of an arduous journey for all involved: Rose, his teammates, the Bulls organization, and the fans that support the team.
"It's a real game," Rose said before Tuesday's shootaround. "For us we're playing in our first game here. It's unreal, and I hope everybody enjoys it."
Amidst all the questions surrounding his return, Rose has always remained the calmest guy in the room. He made his decision last season not play and stuck to it -- no matter how many times people questioned him. Don't think he didn't hear all the criticism he received last season, though. It's what fueled him throughout the summer to train harder than ever and improve his game. There's little doubt among his teammates and coaches that he is a better player than ever before.
"I think you've seen that each year he's been in the league," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "It's the way he approaches things. He puts a lot into each and every day. He studies. I think his experience has taught him a lot. Even though he couldn't play last year he studied. So he is a better player, and I think you'll see him continue to improve each and every year because of the way he approaches things."
Given how well Rose has shot from long range this preseason, there's no reason to think he won't be able to shoot better this season. He is more comfortable from the outside than he's ever been. He wants to prove a point -- that he is still one of the best players in the NBA. His drive to win back some of the goodwill he lost last season and to win a championship begins Tuesday night.
What's next: The Bulls open up the regular season against the Miami Heat at 7 p.m. CT Tuesday.
Keep an eye on: Aside from Rose, it will be interesting to see how Joakim Noah (groin) and Kirk Hinrich (concussion/shoulder) perform after missing large chunks of the preseason.
They said it: Carlos Boozer on the difference between last year's team and this year's team: "We're healthy."
"That's their moment," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said after Monday's practice. "We'll be in the locker room."
Bulls guard Derrick Rose, who will be playing in his first regular-season game in over a year and a half, does not think it will be tough to stay focused.
On the eve of the season opener, our panel weighs in on three key questions facing the Bulls.
1. What are your expectations for Derrick Rose this season?
Nick Friedell: I expect him to play at an MVP level all season long. Rose was upset by all the criticism he received for his decision not to play last season, and he's more motivated than ever to remind people just how good he is. He still has some rust, but there isn't much left. The key for the Bulls will be for Tom Thibodeau to make sure Rose is healthy and ready to roll once the playoffs start.
Scoop Jackson: Same as they were when he stepped on the court after he won the MVP, after being beat by the Heat in the 2011 playoffs. Derrick loves (I'll write that again -- loves! ) to prove wrong those who have doubts when it comes to his ability to ball. It gets obsessive with him. This season will probably be one of those seasons. I expect him to make everyone at ESPN who ranked him at No. 9 on their poll of best players in the league apologize.
Doug Padilla: There is no reason to think Rose won't be exactly what he was in the past, despite now carrying ACL surgery on his resume. That doesn't necessarily mean an MVP season is on the horizon, but Rose should have no issues being the catalyst on a playoff-bound team. Perhaps the only things that would slow his charge are reduced minutes, especially in games that appear well-decided after three quarters, and some nights off on the tail end of back-to-back games. But this is coach Tom Thibodeau we're talking about, so the concept of reduced playing time for any starter is always met with a raised eyebrow.
2. Are Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer playing their final seasons with the Bulls?
Nick Friedell: The safe money has always been on the Bulls amnestying Boozer at the end of the season. While that still seems likely, there's always a chance the Bulls could keep him if they don't feel as though there is a significant upgrade on the free-agent market. Deng is a different story. He didn't get an extension over the summer, and he doesn't appear to want to take a "hometown discount." Unless he does, he won't be back in Chicago. I don't think either player will be back next season, but again, it all depends on who is out there and how much money the Bulls have once the free-agency market opens.
Scoop Jackson: Yes, to both, but for vastly different reasons. Booz because over the course of his career here, he hasn't delivered the way most in the front office and throughout the city expected. And Taj Gibson is probably going to have the type of season that totally reduces Boozer's value. Deng won't be back simply because the Bulls organization (not team) and the media don't appreciate him. Two justified All-Star Game appearances and still non-stop talk/rumors about trading or getting rid of him. If I'm Lu, it's deuces the second that final buzzer of the season sounds.
Doug Padilla: The safest bet is that Deng is playing for a new Bulls contract, while Boozer is on his way out following the season. Despite his size and strength, Boozer doesn't seem to be a self-starter when it comes to the banging and bruising defense Thibodeau likes to play. There are times when Boozer asserts himself, but it doesn't seem to be a first instinct. With Rose back in the fold and Jimmy Butler showing he can be an offensive threat, expect the Bulls to use the Boozer money to find a space-eating defensive stalwart, and maybe even a long-distance shooting threat for the bench as well.
3. Who is a bigger threat to the Heat, the Bulls or Pacers?
Nick Friedell: The Bulls. The Pacers are a solid, deep team, but they do not have a Derrick Rose. I think people have forgotten how good the 25-year-old is -- and can still become. Paul George is getting better, Roy Hibbert is a nice player and Danny Granger may still have some juice in the tank (after he comes back from his calf injury), but none of those guys are Rose, and that's why I think the Bulls pose the biggest challenge to LeBron and the Heat.
Scoop Jackson: With a worse record in the preseason than Cleveland and Detroit, the defenders of the Central Division crown are making last season look like it was a fluke. This time last year, with similar great expectations placed on them, it was the Lakers that were imploding, going without a win in the preseason. People figured that it didn't matter, that once the preseason was over the Lakers would get their act together. We all saw how that turned out. Now the Pacers look as if they could be the 2013-14 version, the Lakers East. Therefore, my answer, for the regular season, is: them Bulls.
Doug Padilla: Since their goals are more trained on NBA championships than winning a division title, the Bulls will remain as the biggest threat. That premise will certainly ring true on opening night Tuesday when the Heat will raise a banner to the rafters before they take on the Bulls. That certainly doesn't mean Indiana will be overlooked, and the evidence of that will come during some intense regular-season matchups with the Pacers this season. Heck, even before the preseason opener against the Pacers, many Bulls players were chatting up the rivalry with their border-state foe.
Miami Heat Tuesday means a little more, Noah couldn't hold back.
"Of course," he said. "Duh."
Throughout the past three years, Thibodeau has done his best to downplay any showdown with the Heat, but that shouldn't fool anyone at this point. The Bulls want to beat the Heat every time they play them. They don't like them. They respect LeBron James and Co. but they do not like them and how they carry themselves. They know that in order to win the East they'll likely have to go through Miami and every game against the Heat offers them a chance to measure themselves against the best.
"Every time you play against Miami it's a statement [game]," Noah said. "It's the beginning of our season, we're a hungry group. We've been waiting for this game for a long time. It's one of 82 but we know every time we play against Miami it's important."
That's the attitude that permeates through the locker room. That's why Derrick Rose said recently that the Bulls' only true rival is Miami. Ever since James and Dwyane Wade paired up, they have been the team to beat. They know in order to take the next step this season they must find a way to knock off Miami.
As they get set for Tuesday night's game there would be no better way to send an early message than by knocking off the Heat to start the season.
What's next: The Bulls practice at the Berto Center and then fly down to Miami Monday afternoon.
Watch out for: Noah (groin) and Kirk Hinrich (shoulder). The pair went through all of Sunday's practice and both said they were feeling good and sounded as if they would play Tuesday. Noah went as far as target="_blank">saying he was "100 percent" ready. Thibodeau will be anxious to see how they respond after missing the last week, even more in Noah's case.
Rose's reputation took a major hit last season when, after being medically cleared to play by team doctors with several months left in the season, he decided not play a single second. He was chastised by frustrated fans for not finding a way to be on the floor to help out his ailing team during the playoffs. In the midst of all the consternation surrounding his decision it's important to recognize a fact that never wavered despite the swirling perception around the MVP: While Rose's pristine public image took a hit, his game remained the same.
As the NBA gets set to enter a new season, one filled with championship expectations for Rose and his Bulls teammates, it feels as if a portion of fans simply forgot how great Rose was when healthy. Obviously, there's no guarantee that Rose will return at the same level after having surgery on his knee over 16 months ago, but many within the Bulls organization are convinced the 24-year-old Rose has a chance to return and be the same player -- if not better.
"He's put a ton of time into his shooting because basically that's all he could do along with his rehab stuff," Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said during the Las Vegas Summer League in July. "Each year that Derrick's been in the league he's added to his game. So this is a continuation of all the things he's done in the past. Every summer he's concentrated on something and we may see more post-ups and things of that nature, more catch-and-shoot for him also."
Up to this point in his career Rose's game has been largely based on speed and quickness, the ability to change directions in the blink of an eye, but even if he doesn't come back with exactly the same burst, his game would be even more rounded with the addition of a more consistent jump shot.
The re-emergence of Rose, combined with the remaining core of Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler, Kirk Hinrich, Taj Gibson and free agent Mike Dunleavy, Jr. is formidable. If that group can stay healthy the Bulls should be right in the middle of the race for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Do the Bulls have a chance to knock off the Miami Heat in a seven-game series? Absolutely. Do I believe they will if LeBron James stays healthy? No.
Same goes for the rest of the teams in the Eastern Conference. Indiana made some nice moves this summer and Paul George is getting better every season. Danny Granger will be back and looking to prove all of his doubters wrong as he heads into a contract year. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce's presence can only help a Brooklyn Nets team that managed to lose a seven-game series to a Bulls team that played without Rose, and Deng and Hinrich for a majority of the series. But in the end, if James stays healthy, all three of these teams are likely playing for second place behind the Heat.
It's within this battle for second that one of the most interesting storylines of the season will develop. After taking the Heat to a Game 7 in last year's Eastern Conference finals, the Pacers believe that they are the closest to knocking the Heat off their throne. Roy Hibbert has turned himself into an All-Star center and Luis Scola's presence on Indiana's roster will make them even stronger.
Some believe that Brooklyn, with Garnett and Pierce joining All-Stars Deron Williams and Brook Lopez, can push the Heat more than any other team in the East. Garnett and Pierce figure to give new coach Jason Kidd the type of passion that was sorely lacking at times last year in Brooklyn.
Meanwhile, given their salary cap restrictions, the Bulls didn't make many splashy moves. Butler heads into the season as the starting two guard, but will he be able to maintain the success he had towards the end of last season? Dunleavy is a solid addition, but he doesn't have anywhere close to the star power of Garnett or Pierce. Still, under Thibodeau the Bulls have developed the type of defensive-minded system that other teams salivate over. Noah, Deng and Butler have proven to be three of the most dependable defenders in the league and play hard every night.
The Bulls may not have added a major piece in the summer, but they are getting back their most important piece of all -- Rose.
Amid all the hoopla and anger surrounding Rose's decision not to play, many seem to have forgotten that he won the MVP award just a couple seasons ago. In that MVP season of 2010-11, Rose averaged 25 points, 7.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds and missed just one game. In his injury-riddled 2011-12 season he still averaged 21.8 points, 7.9 assists and 3.4 rebounds in 39 games.
George, Granger, Pierce and Garnett are all great players -- but none of them have the type of talent Rose has. If Rose can prove he is close to the same player he used to be, he will lead his team to that showdown against the Heat everyone has been wanting to see again.
The Bulls might be playing for second place this season but, with Rose back in the fold, at least get the order straight when it comes to ranking teams behind the Miami Heat. It's the Bulls -- led by Rose -- and then everybody else.
Bulls at Miami Heat, Oct. 29: The regular season opener. This is scheduled to be Rose's first regular season game since April 25, 2012. This is also the Heat's ring night and the fans in Miami will be going nuts. This is the game all Bulls fans, and league executives, will have circled on their schedule.
New York Knicks at Bulls, Oct. 31: The Bulls' home opener. Rose is scheduled to play his first game at the United Center since tearing his ACL against the Philadelphia 76ers in the first game of the 2012 Eastern Conference playoffs.
Cleveland Cavaliers at Bulls, Nov. 11: Rose and Cleveland star point guard Kyrie Irving have yet to face each other in a professional game. This would mark the first time assuming both are healthy.
Bulls at Los Angeles Clippers, Nov. 24: The Bulls get their first shot at the new-look Clippers led by Doc Rivers. It will be interesting to see how Rose and Co. handle Chris Paul in the middle of their first long West Coast swing of the season.
Heat at Bulls, Dec. 5: LeBron James and his teammates make their first appearance in the United Center this season. Don't think they've forgotten that this was the place their 27-game winning streak ended last season.
Bulls at Houston Rockets, Dec. 18: The Bulls embark on arguably their most difficult back-to-back of the season as they face Dwight Howard and James Harden in Houston and then follow that up against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder the next night.
Bulls at Brooklyn Nets, Dec. 25: Rose and his teammates have always talked about what an honor it is to play on Christmas Day. They'll get their chance again this year against the Kevin Garnett-led Nets in Brooklyn.
Bulls at Golden State Warriors, Feb. 6: After struggling for years at Oracle Arena, the Bulls picked up a blowout win there last season. With Andre Iguodala in Golden State and Rose back with the Bulls, this game should be action-packed. Plus, Tom Thibodeau will face Brian Scalabrine, now an assistant coach on Mark Jackson's staff, for the first time.
Heat at Bulls, March 9: The Bulls are back in a familiar role -- playing a Sunday afternoon nationally-televised game against the league's best. This is the final time in the regular season these two teams meet and should be a good primer for a possible Eastern Conference finals showdown.
Indiana Pacers at Bulls, March 24: This rivalry has gained a lot of steam over the past few seasons. Many pundits believe the Pacers have passed the Bulls as far as threats to the Heat go. Thibodeau will have his team amped up for this game.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported last week that the Bulls and Heat are expected to face off against each other in the season opener on Oct. 29. Bulls third-year guard Jimmy Butler says he and his teammates will not be looking forward to seeing LeBron James and Co. get their championship rings.
"I don't think anybody wants to watch that on our team so we won't pay too much attention to it," Butler said Tuesday on "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN Chicago 1000. "They deserved it. They won a championship, definitely, but they got to deal with the Chicago Bulls for 48 minutes coming out right after that, they get their rings."
Butler also acknowledged that there is a growing dislike between the Bulls and the Heat. The Heat have knocked the Bulls out of the playoffs in two of the past three seasons.
"I think so," Butler said when asked about the dislike between the teams. "But it's not just us, it's the city. That rivalry, it's crazy. They're the back-to-back champions and when you think three-peat, you think Chicago so we can't let that happen."
The Heat have been the favorites in the East since the moment LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh teamed up in 2010, but with the Pacers charging hard for the Heat's crown the Bulls have to wonder if they are still the best team in their own division, let alone the conference.