Already fired up for the Heat
Last season's disappointing ending is fueling the Bulls to work even harder
CHICAGO -- Everyone knows Tom Thibodeau is the Roger Ebert of the NBA. Film is his passion.
During their abbreviated training camp, the Chicago Bulls had exercise bikes facing the projection screen on their practice court, all the better to multitask while he showed a horror movie.
Thibodeau's film, footage from the team's Eastern Conference finals meltdown, was for mature audiences and it had a distinct purpose.
If the Bulls players tried to avoid thinking about their collapse against the Miami Heat during their extended hiatus, they couldn't escape the footage of the preening Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh as they prepared for their second season as a targeted team with sky-high expectations.
So how was the Miami Film Festival?
"It was painful," Joakim Noah said after Monday's practice, as the team prepares for its final exhibition game Tuesday against Indiana and the season opener Sunday in Los Angeles. "It was motivational, of course. Everything that is painful is motivating at the end of the day. You know, it went to five [games], but it might as well have gone seven. Just how the series really came down to nothing, being up 12 points in Game 5 with three minutes to go. It's a lot to handle. It took me a long time, a long time, to get over that."
I brought it up, but it's clear Noah, the guy who famously called the Heat "Hollywood as hell," still hasn't forgotten the loss. Neither has Derrick Rose, who blames himself for dropping four straight games.
"The reason we lost last year, I told you, it was because of me," Rose said when the Berto Center opened to players. "Not making the right plays, not passing to my teammates when they were open, just making that extra pass."
That kind of attitude is good because "Beat the Heat" might as well be the motto for the team's 2012 campaign. From the fans to the front office to the team, no one will be happy with anything less than a trip to the NBA Finals, and most figure that Miami will be the team standing in Chicago's way.
Chicago doesn't face the Heat until Jan. 29, but it's safe to say the Bulls will be judged all season against the specter of the Heat. When the Bulls were shopping for a shooting guard, the overwhelming question was: Can this guy help against Miami?
The thought of a rematch might also be the carrot that keeps Chicago from slacking after an overachieving season. Well, that and Thibodeau's rigorous commitment to routine.
"One thing you can see is the experience last year paid off," Luol Deng said. "Last year everything we did was the first time, it was surprising. We worked hard for it, but at the same time, this year we're kind of expecting it. We know we have to work as hard as we did last year, but now we know what kind of team we have. Last year was just all on paper before we went out and won 62 games."
We won't know if the addition of Rip Hamilton (a familiar irritant to Wade) will be the answer until the playoffs, but the uncertainty won't stop the questions. Neither will regular-season wins over the Heat.
That's fine. Bring it on, says Deng.
"You guys can ask us 100 times about the Heat," Deng said. "It's OK. We know we've got to go through them and it's something we're not going to try and go around."
Noah admitted having a rematch against Miami in the playoffs would "be a dream come true." Just before preseason practice began, Carlos Boozer said team vice president John Paxson delivered a similar message last spring.
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"Pax talked to us about it at the end of last season, all those wars they had with Detroit before they finally broke through and beat the Lakers," Boozer told reporters. "That's how you grow. You go through defeats. And you learn from your mistakes and you become better and you let those mistakes motivate you."
Motivation aside, Noah said he understands the appeal of this storyline, and we're all counting on him to provide ammo during the teams' four regular-season games. We might be out of luck.
"I think when you're a player you understand what the media wants and that they're trying to sell stories," he said. "You understand that, and as a player, you also have to understand there are a lot of great teams out there. Miami is, of course, a great team. But the Atlanta Hawks wasn't a cupcake series at all. Indiana is getting better.
"I understand the expectations, but the Knicks are going to be really good too, and so is Boston. There are a lot of teams out there with a lot of talent. The East is just getting better and better. It's on us to work hard every day and see how far we can take it."
The road to the NBA Finals might go through Miami again, but first, the journey starts now. The trip was memorable last season, while the destination was lacking. The Bulls want more.
"We're not happy with what happened last year," Deng said. "We won 62 games, but we think we could go further and do better. We all believe that, and we're all committed to what we have to do this year."
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.