The Heat and Bulls take center stage Thursday night in a potential conference finals preview. Can Miami catch Chicago for the No. 1 seed in the East? Our experts dissect tonight's matchup:
1. Should the Bulls sit Derrick Rose for this game?
Beckley Mason, ESPN.com: If he can play at anything approximating full strength, no. It's good for him to see the different ways the Heat might try to defend him, and the Bulls need to maintain their hold on the top seed in the East. But this game won't make or break their season, so any health concerns should overrule Rose's competitive zeal.
Braedan Ritter, By The Horns: The Bulls should play Rose if he says he is ready. That's what they did with his groin injury, and Rose seemed to play it wisely; he just unfortunately injured another part of his body. Chicago doesn't gain anything from sitting its point guard. The Bulls need to get their potential starting lineup some minutes together before the playoffs.
Amin Vafa, Hardwood Paroxysm: I don't know how serious his ankle injury is, but if Rose is able to play, he shouldn't sit this one out. The Bulls have shown they can beat teams they'll likely face in the playoffs without Rose. Now it's time to show they can beat them with him on the floor, too.
Michael Wallace, Heat Index: They might as well, seeing how well the Bulls have learned to play without Rose throughout the regular season. Chicago also beat the Heat without Rose last month. At some point, Rose and Rip Hamilton are going to have to establish some rhythm with their teammates. But there's really nothing either of these teams can prove in tonight's game. If Rose is ailing, there's no need to risk anything in a physical and emotional game against Miami.
Brian Windhorst, Heat Index: Absolutely. I'm in favor of using this week to give players as much rest as possible and then, by next week, starting to build up a rhythm for the playoffs. I've pretty much been told I'm full of it by Erik Spoelstra, but in this season, I continue to believe the playoffs will end up being a war of attrition. The Bulls have no chance without a reasonably healthy Rose, so why mess around?
2. How worried should the Heat be about losing five of 10 games?
Mason: A little. Miami had a nightmare schedule in the past two weeks, but there seems to be a real lack of urgency in its play, especially on defense. Also, coach Erik Spoelstra's rotations have been odd; the team just looks out of sorts.
Ritter: Miami should be a little worried. In its defense, all of its losses were against playoff teams. But the problem is Miami wasn't really close in any of them, losing by an average of 14.6 points in those five games. In the end, as long as Miami is healthy for the playoffs, it'll be the favorite in almost every series.
Vafa: They should be half-worried. The loss against OKC washed out with a win against them 10 days later, but the losses in general don't bother me as much as the fact that three came against Boston (two) and Indiana (one) -- two teams they might very well see this postseason.
Wallace: It's difficult to convince this team it should be worried about anything that happens in the regular season outside of significant injuries. The Heat went through some of these same tough losses and chemistry issues last season -- even late last spring -- and recovered well enough to dispatch every team in the East in five games during the playoffs. There are kinks that still need to be worked out, but let's not kid ourselves; it'll be hard for anyone in the East to beat this team four times in seven games.
Windhorst: The Heat have this belief that they'll figure things out and flip the old switch for the playoffs. I cannot say this won't happen because last year I thought they wouldn't make it past the second round. I have to respect their talent level. But last April the Heat were rounding into form at this stage. Now Spoelstra is changing lineups almost nightly and the Heat are offering excuses why seeding doesn't matter. There's still time to get in gear like last year, but that starts right now.
3. What are you most eager to see during tonight's game?
Mason: Besides the thrill of watching two incredibly athletic teams play extremely hard, I'm wondering whether Dwyane Wade can get it going. Ronnie Brewer and the Bulls' defense have had Wade's number over the past two seasons. Can the Heat find ways to help him score more easily?
Ritter: If Rose is back, I'll be eager to see how he does against Miami's defense, after looking rusty and turning it over eight times against New York. If Rose sits, I'll be tuned into the LeBron James-Luol Deng matchup, which will be the biggest factor in how this game -- and possible playoff series -- shakes out.
Vafa: An MVP performance from Rose, even though there's a chance he won't perform at all. The Bulls need him to play like an MVP if they've got their eyes set on a title. Not only does that mean he needs to be healthy, but he needs to make sure LeBron doesn't outplay him like he did in the conference finals last year.
Wallace: If Chris Bosh can have a breakout game that's worthy of the near-max contract he's being paid. The same could be said for Carlos Boozer. The underachieving/overpaid power forward who plays the best will be the difference for his team in the outcome of the game. I've said it a million times: The reason Bosh is viewed by Erik Spoelstra as the Heat's most important player is because this team can't win it all if he doesn't play like an All-Star.
Windhorst: The Heat have yet to see the Bulls with Rose, Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton playing. That might not happen tonight, either. But I would really like to see how the Heat match up when the Bulls' backcourt is at full strength. This, to me, is where a series would be won. I still don't know whether the Bulls have closed the gap enough from last season when it cost them the conference finals.
4. Who needs this game more: Miami or Chicago?
Mason: Chicago. I don't see Chicago beating Miami in the playoffs without the top seed, and the Bulls can all but wrap that up with a win tonight.
Ritter: Chicago needs this game more. The Heat are the defending champs in the East, so everything goes through Miami. But if Chicago keeps the No. 1 seed, things can geographically go through the United Center. The Bulls need that home-court advantage and the confidence that comes with beating the Heat -- even though neither helped them in last year's playoffs.
Vafa: Chicago. If Miami beats the Bulls -- with or without Rose -- that's going to kill some of the confidence the Bulls have going into the playoffs. Best scenario for Chicago: Rose plays tonight, puts up an MVP-caliber performance in a close win and nails all of his fourth-quarter free throws.
Wallace: Theoretically, I guess you have to say Miami. The Heat are three games back in the standings behind the Bulls for the No. 1 seed in the East with 10 games remaining. But Miami's players aren't too concerned about going into the playoffs with the best record. The Heat are confident they can steal home-court advantage by winning one game in Chicago -- they won two in last season's conference finals -- if necessary.
Windhorst: The Bulls don't need to win, but they always play like they do; that is one of their best assets. The Heat need a win like this -- their last quality road win was probably in February in Atlanta -- but they don't always play like they need to win. So with that, I'll say the Heat need this more. Regardless of what they project about their belief that everything will be fine by the playoffs, there's got to be some sort of starting point.
5. Who wins tonight: Miami or Chicago?
Mason: Chicago. Miami gives up too many open 3-point shots and my guess is the Bulls' guards shoot well enough at home to make the Heat pay, even if Rose doesn't play.
Ritter: I think Miami is going to take this one. The Heat are embarrassed about Tuesday night's performance against Boston, and they're going to buckle down on defense. The Heat probably aren't happy they lost to the Bulls sans Rose the last time these two squads met, either, which only adds fuel to their fire. They won't take John Lucas lightly twice.
Vafa: This is really tough, but I'm going to have to go with Chicago. The Bulls are at home and they're carrying the momentum of a redemption win against the Knicks into tonight's game. But I wouldn't be surprised in the least if the Heat took this one.
Wallace: It depends on who plays or, better yet, who sits. I don't see the Bulls beating the Heat a second time if Rose isn't in the lineup. That said, Spoelstra would only reveal that everyone on his team would be available tonight. He stopped short of suggesting that each of his three stars would play. All things even, I've got the Heat winning this one.
Windhorst: I'm going to cop out. If Rose plays, I pick the Bulls. If he doesn't, I pick the Heat. Miami actually played reasonably well against the Celtics the other night. It was the first time in awhile I saw the Heat engaged up and down the roster. If they carry that over and play a Bulls team without its best player they have a good chance of winning. Though based on the way they've played on the road since the All-Star break, they'll probably make me look like a fool.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Michael Wallace and Brian Windhorst write for the Heat Index. Beckley Mason contributes to ESPN.com. Braedan Ritter and Amin Vafa contribute to the TrueHoop Network.