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Thursday, January 12, 2012
Playing with fire

By Michael Wilbon
ESPNChicago.com

The schedule said Washington Wizards on Wednesday night, but of course the Bulls were playing the Miami Heat. Coaches and players remind us all the time that they take 'em one game at a time, that they're playing the opponent in front of them that night, and, yes, the great players and best teams compartmentalize and narrow their awareness for a couple of hours on game nights.

While they're obligated to deny any interest in what's down the road, the teams with legitimate ambition are also consumed with the greater context of a season, even one that lasts 66 games. The opponent for the Bulls every night, in that greater context, is Miami.

Larry Bird & Magic Johnson
Just as Magic Johnson always kept an eye on Larry Bird and the Celtics, the big picture for the Bulls is shaped by their rivalry with the Heat.

The Philadelphia 76ers are going to be a team to be taken seriously, sooner rather than later. The Indiana Pacers are talented, deep and dramatically improved from a year ago. The defensively challenged Knicks are who most of us thought they were, which is to say too flawed to seriously contend. But the Eastern Conference this season, presuming relative health, is about whether the Bulls can catch the Heat. Yes, not yet three weeks into this abbreviated, compressed and entirely less predictable season, it's evident.

Magic Johnson was talking the other night about the years when the Lakers and Celtics were great, when his team and Larry Bird's team had laser-like focus and couldn't be distracted by anything on game nights. Publicly, they'd talk about playing 'em one at a time too, out of obligation.

But in the locker room, on team planes, in every moment not obsessed with winning that night's game, Magic was dominated by one train of thought. "What are the Celtics doing?" Were the Celtics playing well, were they healthy, were they going to make a personnel move before the trade deadline, were they running any new plays, had some opponent come up with any new defensive wrinkle that had any kind of limited success against the Celtics?

That's where the Bulls are headed, or had better be, relative to Miami. Forget about these consecutive late losses to the Warriors and Clippers. Everything about Miami says the Heat is the team that's going to stand in the Bulls' way of getting to the Finals for the next few seasons.

Magic says he cannot imagine the Bulls not looking at every development, every in-game substitution going on down in Miami. At the same time, last year's Eastern Conference finals might have lasted only five games, but the games were contentious enough, close enough and decided late enough for Miami to look at the Bulls as its No. 1 threat. We've already reached the portion of the program where every victory over the Pistons, Timberwolves and Wizards is expected, and every nuance of the Bulls season is juxtaposed with something going on in Miami.

It's totally fair and reasonable ... and not unlike the Red Sox and Yankees looking at each other suspiciously or, closer to home, the way the Bulls and Pistons spied on each other in the late 1980s and early '90s.

It also means we've reached the nit-picking portion of the program for the Bulls, for reading (often erroneously) into every surge, every slump, every reduction or increase in minutes played or shots ... and certainly the sight of the MVP on the bench in a walking boot because of the always maddening turf toe.

The best news for the Bulls so far is that Derrick Rose hasn't been distracted by individual honors or newfound riches. He appears consumed with winning, both every night and in the big picture. His scoring is down, as it'll need to be for the Bulls to be ultimately successful, to 20.7 ppg. His assists aren't substantially up, but his involving other teammates is.

The bad news really isn't actually bad, depending on how we choose to interpret it. Carlos Boozer's play was the big worry at the end of the Miami series. Now it's Joakim Noah. He's down from 11.7 points and 10.4 rebounds per game last season to 7.1 points and 7.5 rebounds. Worst of all, he's down to 39.7 percent shooting from 52.5. He hasn't played with the energy and ferocity he did last season or in 2010 -- or for that matter since his first days at the University of Florida.

Having Noah and sometimes Boozer (scoring down from 17.5 ppg last season to 13.3 this season) on the bench in the fourth quarter couldn't be what the Bulls brass had in mind when it signed each to big contracts. Clearly the Heat players have to be looking at this curiously and probably taking a cue that they can attack Boozer and Noah whenever they're in the game. It seems like a step back from last season.

On the other hand, it's reassuring to know that Tom Thibodeau isn't Les Miles, that Thibs is more concerned with winning, short term and long term, than he is about egos or hurt feelings, which is exactly what often sends teams with big expectations into irreversible slides. It seems totally in keeping with Thibs' philosophy that if Omer Asik (playing time up to 18.6 minutes per game from 12.1 minutes last season) and Taj Gibson are playing better defense, as was the case against the Wizards on Wednesday night, then it's fine for them to be the closers.

While it seems to be a fretting point among some, perhaps they should remember that Phil Jackson, en route to the Bulls' first NBA Finals, took veteran players off the floor in the playoffs to play a rookie, Scott Williams, in a closing role.

Look, we don't have any idea whether this more evenly distributed playing time will work against Miami, but it's great to see Thibs isn't figuring out his lineup based on salaries and reputation. So far, the Noah/Boozer/Gibson/Asik rotation has worked like a charm in terms of the only thing that matters, W's and L's.

At the end of the evening Wednesday, the Bulls, once again, had the best record in the Eastern Conference despite playing eight of 12 games on the road. Everybody's offensive numbers -- it's the case around the league too -- are down; Luol Deng is down nearly three points per game, as an example.

But as was the case last season, the Bulls are the classic example of a team that's greater than the sum of its parts. The Bulls are never going to equal Miami in star power or on-paper matchups, so it's worthless to discuss the rivalry in those terms.

Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose's turf toe injury is a reason for concern, but his focus continues to be on winning.

What the Bulls appear to have, a dozen games in, is a willingness to accept that if they carry out their roles in support of Rose and damn the personal statistics, they can beat anybody, Miami included. Until the first actual encounter with Miami in a couple of weeks, beating the Magic in Orlando -- or the Celtics in Boston on Friday night -- is the best piece of evidence so far.

The Bulls are tied for the league's best record even with Rip Hamilton playing just five of the first 12 games, and it's been wise to be cautious with Hamilton and his groin pull in a season that is already being defined by injury (see Memphis and Oklahoma City). The Bulls don't need Hamilton to be good in January. They need him to find some kind of stride with the starters by the end of April. When I talked to Hamilton last week, he was fine with his minutes being down when he did play. There's nothing to be gained from wearing him out and having him at less than his best when the Bulls begin the playoffs. Hamilton knows that while this 66-game season is being described as compacted, that it's still a marathon, fraught with streaks and slumps, stops and starts.

But nearly 20 percent of the way into it, with precious few home games, the Bulls look to be in pretty much the same place they were in June ... looking eye-to-eye with Miami for a spot in the NBA Finals. What's happening now, even as they put away the likes of the Pistons, Timberwolves and Wizards, is essentially jockeying for position, sizing up the biggest and best kid on the playground who at some point or another is going to have "next."

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.