New Season, Same Old Heat

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We don’t like them, they don’t like us.
LeBron James

I love Miami, I love this city. I just don’t like the Heat. I really don’t like the Heat.
Joakim Noah

The rivalry
One of the most common criticisms of the NBA today is that players on opposite teams are too friendly with one another. Rival superstars—guys who really should be mortal enemies (or so the critics say)—train together in the off-season (see: Kevin Durant and LeBron James), exchange pleasantries before and after games, and worst of all: conspire together to build super-teams. In other words, there’s not enough dislike—not enough competitive hatred. There’s nothing comparable to a Michael Jordan-Isiah Thomas feud, born out of brutal competition and both men’s insane focus on the ultimate goal. Nothing like Larry Bird refusing to shake Bill Laimbeer’s hand prior to games. Nothing like the rivalry between the Celtics and Lakers of the 1980s.

The problem is, this overly simplistic narrative overlooks a couple inconvenient truths: 1. Rival superstars didn’t hate each other quite as much as some would like us to believe—Magic and Larry, as their careers went on, became great friends, and 2. There are two teams in today’s NBA that really don’t like each other: The Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat.

The Bulls-Heat rivalry isn’t divisional, geographic, or a result of a long, historic battle for NBA supremacy. The rivalry is relatively new, resulting from two teams both trying to rule the Eastern Conference in recent seasons; and it’s been honed by two playoff series in the last three years, the Bulls breaking Miami’s 27-game win streak, and cheap shots galore—both verbal and physical.

It was only fitting then, that those two teams—the two-time defending champion, Miami Heat, and the Chicago Bulls, many people’s bet to dethrone the champs this year—met in the NBA’s opening night, marquee match-up. Elsewhere, Paul George filled up the box-score for Indiana, and a Lakers five-man unit featuring Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry destroyed the Clippers; but Bulls-Heat was the game people cared about—the game that had fans buzzing.

Prior to the opening tip the Heat received their 2012-13 championship rings, with owner Micky Arison standing alongside David Stern, as the Heat’s coaching staff and players went up to receive their silverware. This was nothing out of the ordinary, of course; the champs always receive their rings on opening night. However, the Chicago Bulls, if they were watching the festivities, likely seethed at the gaudy procession—although I imagine that seething is Tom Thibodeau’s natural state.

If the Bulls had had better luck over the past few seasons, their fans would argue that it could have been them collecting their rings from commissioner Stern on opening night. And when you think of bad luck and the Chicago Bulls, you think of one man.

The return
Last night wasn’t just about the return of NBA basketball after a five-month hiatus—it wasn’t just about the rekindling of the Bulls-Heat rivalry. Last night was about the return of one of the most exciting players in the game, the only player in the past five years, other than LeBron James, to win MVP: Mr. Derrick Rose.

Rose went down in Game 2 of Chicago’s first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers back in April 2012. At the time Rose tore his ACL, LeBron James did not yet have a ring, Dwight Howard was still in Orlando, the Big 3 were still going strong in Boston, and the Sixers were actually trying to win games. It’s been a long wait.

And the joy at seeing one of the best, most explosive, and possibly the most exciting player in the NBA return to the hard-court last night, transcends rivalry—it transcends loyalty to a particular team. If you love the NBA you can’t help but love Derrick Rose. There’s no player quite like him—no point-guard that can do what he does.

From a Bulls perspective Rose was the missing-piece last season. In Tom Thibodeau’s brutally disciplined and brutally effective defensive system, the Bulls, in Rose’s absence, managed to punch well above their weight. But offensively they came unglued. Offensive sets had to be executed to perfection. Scoring was a grind. The team had no off-the-dribble creator who could get the rim and cause havoc in the paint, creating shots for himself and for others. Nothing was easy.

Rose is a player that sucks the defense in; a guy that draws double-teams, freeing up shooters on the perimeter, and opening up driving lanes for his teammates. Last night we saw glimpses of what the Bulls had been missing last season; a beautiful splitting of the double-team and finish in traffic here, a drive to the bucket and a hand-off for an easy Carlos Boozer bucket there. He was rusty, but he was back.

Rose will get better as he gets more games under his belt—he hasn’t played competitive basketball in 18 months. But the Bulls superstar couldn’t have asked for a tougher team to make his NBA return against.

The challenge
In last night’s game, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined to score just 30 points. If that had happened two seasons ago the Heat would’ve been in big trouble. In-fact, they probably would’ve lost.

The Heat of two seasons ago were a team comprised of uber-talented individuals, but the parts were greater than the whole. In late 2013, however, as the Heat’s Big 3 era enters its fourth season, the whole is most definitely greater than the sums of its parts. The Heat can survive low scoring games from LeBron and Wade because everyone—starters and bench players—are able to contribute. Everyone has a well-defined role. The Heat had 42 points off the bench last night—Shane Battier drained all four of his 3-pointers, while Chris Anderson snared eight rebounds in just 17 minutes of playing time.

The Heat have a system now. It’s no longer a “whose turn is it now?” iso-ball competition between Wade and LeBron. It’s a system honed by trial and error, and of course, no lack of talent. On offense, it’s all about ‘pace and space’, as Steve Kerr called it last night. The Heat don’t waste possessions shooting 20-foot jump shots, or off-the-dribble 3s. They look to score in the paint, or in the corners. Their system is predicated on the ability to move the ball and to drive to the basket.

The Heat used that supreme ball movement, and a brutally effective pressing defense, to run out comfortable winners over the Bulls last night. They held a 20 point lead for much of the game, before the Bulls fought back in the fourth quarter to put the score in the realm of respectability.

Of course, it’s dangerous after opening games to draw grand conclusions—to be seduced by small sample size. If the Bulls had beaten the Heat last night, perhaps everyone would be writing about the end of Miami’s reign and the resurgence of Chicago. But what we saw last night is what we’ve been seeing from the Heat for the past two years. When they’re locked-in at both ends, few teams can live with them. They’re the best team in the league and they’ve once again laid down the gauntlet for the rest of the NBA.

In many pre-season previews the Chicago Bulls were picked as the team most likely to conquer Miami and prevent the three-peat. ESPN’s Bill Simmons, in fact, had Chicago on top of his pre-season power rankings. The Heat looked vulnerable in the playoffs last season, that’s not in question. And the Bulls have Derrick Rose back, a top-five NBA player. But until someone wins four out of seven games in a playoff series against Miami—and that hasn’t happened since 2011—they are the team to beat.

And judging by last night’s performance, that remains a daunting task.

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