Originally Published: April 13, 2013

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Playoffs Near: How Will Heat Approach Bulls?

By Michael Wallace | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- When the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls last met late last month, the second-longest winning streak in NBA history was halted soon after reigning MVP LeBron James got hammered by a couple of hard fouls.

An exceedingly physical tone was set by Kirk Hinrich's first-quarter tackle of James, and the Bulls' stunning victory was capped shortly after Taj Gibson chopped the Heat star across the neck and shoulders in the fourth quarter.

Both teams had plenty at stake back on March 27.

Heat
Issac Baldizon/Getty ImagesMiami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra played his three stars Friday. Will he do the same Sunday?

The Heat were trying to extend a 27-game win streak that would ultimately fall six short of the mark set by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. Meanwhile, the Bulls were aiming for a top-four spot in the East, home-court advantage in the playoffs and Derrick Rose's possible late-season debut.

But now?

Basically, all of those hopes have faded in the three weeks since the short-handed Bulls held off the Heat, 101-97, at the United Center. Now, both banged-up teams insist their priority is to get through the final days of the regular season and enter the playoffs as healthy as possible.

So that should render Sunday's showdown (ABC, 1 p.m. ET) between the Heat and Bulls simply an exhibition-style sparring session less than a week before the postseason, right?

Well, not necessarily.

"I expect nothing less than physical," James said. "The whole game will be physical. Physicality towards me, physicality towards everyone. I look forward to it. It'll be a good game. Once you're on the floor, you just go out and play. You can't shy away from it. You just take the challenge. And we'll be ready for it."

The bigger question is whether either coach should subject their star players to the potential pounding at this stage. For the Heat, James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have played just two games together since that loss in Chicago, with all three recently rotating rest and recovery from nagging injuries or illness over the past three weeks.

Along the way, Miami has managed to clinch the No. 1 seed in the East, the best record in the league and potential home-court advantage through the NBA Finals.

Counting Sunday, Miami (63-16) has three relatively meaningless games left in the season. That would seem to set up as the perfect time for coach Erik Spoelstra to put his "maintenance program" in full effect to ensure James, Wade and Bosh risk as little as possible before Game 1 of the playoffs against the No. 8 seed, Milwaukee.

But Spoelstra prides himself and his system on countering conventional wisdom. He approached this weekend's two-game homestand as the ultimate playoff preparation pop quiz for the Heat. So after James, Wade and Bosh played together for the first time in two weeks in Friday's 109-101 win against Boston, all signs indicate the trio will be back on the court Sunday against another playoff-bound team.

Other than appearing for treatment sessions and promotional events around Miami, the team had the day off Saturday. But James said Friday night that he planned to play Sunday against the Bulls, "if Spo allows me to." Wade, who returned from a six-game absence Friday, said his plan was to play against both the Celtics and the Bulls.

For Spoelstra, both the quality of competition and the day off between the two weekend games is the closest thing the Heat could get to simulating how the playoffs will feel.

"We don't know what their plan is for playing any of their guys," Spoelstra said of the Bulls. "But you can expect a physical game. Regardless, it will be a good tuneup for us -- a playoff mentality, because there will be bodies colliding and it will be tough to generate wide-open looks."

Chicago has been dealing with injury absences so frequently that it has been forced to start 16 different lineups this season. Over the past three seasons, the Bulls have faced the Heat without Rose more than they have with him. Richard Hamilton has only made cameo appearances in their recent matchups, and the Bulls were without Joakim Noah when they ended the Heat's historic winning streak.

Rose has missed the entire season recovering from knee surgery he had a year ago, although he has been traveling and practicing with the team for a couple of months. Hamilton returned from a back injury two games ago, but Noah (foot) and Gibson (knee) were sidelined recently.

All of the injuries have left the Bulls teetering between a mystery and a marvel for much of the season. Despite being perpetually short-handed, Chicago has remained one of the top defensive teams and has generated enough of a spark to snap two of the best streaks of the season.

After halting the Heat last month, the Bulls ended the New York Knicks' 13-game win streak in overtime Thursday.

But Chicago has also been enough of an enigma to have lost four of its past five matchups with lottery-bound teams, including two in the span of a week against Toronto.

After Friday's loss to the Raptors, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters in Toronto that now is certainly no time to buy into injuries or fatigue as excuses for some of the team's inconsistent performances this season.

"You play for each other, and that commitment has to be made by everybody," Thibodeau said Friday. "If we don't do that, we're not going to give ourselves a chance to win. We're short-handed, our chances [rely on] intensity and doing everything collectively. If we do that, we have a chance to win. If we don't, if someone wants to stand outside the circle, it's going to break everyone down."

The Heat certainly don't view the Bulls as a broken-down squad. They're still too good at beating up opponents.

The Bulls enter Sunday seeded sixth in the East, a half-game behind Atlanta for the fifth seed. As it stands now, Chicago would be headed for a first-round series against Indiana and would potentially avoid Miami until the conference finals. But the Pacers are 3-1 against the Bulls this season. If Chicago gets the fifth seed, it would face Brooklyn in the first round and potentially meet Miami in the second round. The Bulls are 3-1 against the Nets this season.

"They have the talent to be there, they have the system, they have an unbelievable coach," Wade said of the Bulls. "So they're right where they should be. They love challenges. You see we came in there with our streak, and (so did) the Knicks. And those guys step up to the billing. So they'll be a dangerous team in the playoffs, as they always are. They have a defensive system that is amazing. They have an offensive system they play very well. You've got to beat them. They're not going to give it to you."

And that's another reason why the Heat won't tread lightly entering Sunday's game. If James, Wade and Bosh step onto the court, they know they must be prepared to lock into a playoff-style battle and not a glorified scrimmage.

James took exception to the fouls by Hinrich and Gibson in the previous meeting, and said afterward that he didn't consider them to be basketball plays. When Hinrich grabbed James in the open court to prevent a fast break, both players went crashing to the ground, and it was called a common foul. Gibson's hit on James was also initially assessed as a common foul on the court, but was upgraded to a flagrant penalty the next day upon league review.

The Heat don't expect anything less than another hard-fought game between the two conference rivals. No team has had more regular-season success against Miami since 2010 than the Bulls, who have won seven of those past 10 meetings. But Miami took the lone playoff battle in that span with a five-game series win in the 2011 conference finals.

"They're just that team where if it's pickup (games), if it's preseason, if it's anything involving basketball, it's going to be physical," Bosh said. "Our guys take it to the hole pretty aggressively. Sometimes guys make certain plays -- whether it's a basketball play or not a basketball play, it's really up for grabs. We never minded hard, clean fouls."

Bosh also said that, at this point in the season, it's always smart for playoff-bound players to protect themselves and limit injury risks with far more meaningful games on deck.

"It still comes down to basketball," Spoelstra said when asked if the rivalry's physical nature will factor in whether his star players are available Sunday. "Our players don't shy away from physicality. We have to prepare for next weekend. All of those factor in -- the health, how they feel. We want to continue to build a rhythm, but how (the Bulls) play will not influence us. We're not afraid of anybody."