MIAMI -- Always, said Joakim Noah, when asked about facing a familiar foe Friday night, the defending-champion Heat.
Its always big to play here, continued the center, who will return to action after a one-game absence, due to flu-like symptoms. Its going to be fun.
I dont think its just another team in the East. Theyre very good, we want to compete against the best and its always a battle, so its going to be exciting.
Thats an understatement. Obviously the Bulls arent considered an elite team by observers this season, partially due to Derrick Roses recovery from ACL surgery, as well as the departure of the majority of the Bench Mob, but that doesnt mean Miami isnt taking them seriously.
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They still have that Chicago Bulls fabric and toughness. They just grind. I think the fact their fifth in the Eastern Conference right now with the MVP out shows you the character of the team. Theyve had a lot of changes, their bench looks totally different and yet, they still find a way -- even after tough losses -- they find a way just to grind, stay in there and win enough games to get them right in the middle of the pack of that Eastern Conference, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said after his teams morning shootaround. Theyre a dangerous team, and theyre mentally and physically tough enough to win in any building, and we know that, regardless of Rose being out, bench looking different, you know how theyre going to play, so its going to be an extremely physical, competitive game, likely will be close. It doesnt matter which building -- here or in Chicago -- and well have to earn it, and well have to play a complete, 48-minute game.
Reigning league MVP LeBron James concurred: We understand what Chicago brings. They bring a lot of size, a lot of physical play. Their defensive intensity makes you focus even more on your offense, your ball movement.
The respect is mutual, as the Bulls have gone toe-to-toe with the Heat frequently over the past two seasons and while they havent always come out on top, virtually every game has been a dogfight. But just because Miami has a title under its belt now, not to mention adding the likes of sharpshooter Ray Allen during free agency, dont expect the Bulls to defer to their rival, although theyre wary of the champions firepower.
Theyve added a significant player in Ray Allen, so the three-point shooting, its always been big, but its even bigger now, so their offense is spectacular. They added a lot to their team and they won the championship last year, so their depth makes them even more dangerous, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau explained. A guy like Ray Allen is a big shot-maker late in the game, LeBron James continues to get better, Dwyane Wade is healthy again, Chris Bosh sort of fills in whatever needs they have for whatever particular game theyre playing. His skill sets unique; put him at the five, they can out-quick you up and down the floor. Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier, Mike Miller, those guys are great role players. Mario Chalmers is a guy who sort of flies under the radar, another great role player. So, its a team thats very well put together.
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Chimed in Noah, when asked about countering Miamis small-ball approach -- Bosh plays center now, something he previously resisted in his career -- something theyve used extensively since switching to it last postseason: Rebounding, defense, try to give them the least amount of opportunities in transition because when they start playing that fast-tempo, transition game theyre pretty much unstoppable, so its on us to try to slow them down as much as possibleIve never faced it before, so well have to wait and see, see what it looks like, but theyre obviously very talented, they spread the floor very well, theyve got great shooters and they have great talent, but they still post up a lot with LeBron, so they have a lot of offensive firepower.
For Miamis part, they aren't taking the Bulls for granted and even without Rose in the lineup, the Eastern Conference squad thats given them the fiercest battles over the last two seasons is still must-see TV.
Ive seen them. Ive watched them -- a lot -- and the adjustments theyve made, theyve kind of went away from the pick-and-roll theyve done in the past with D-Rose being such a good pick-and-roll player, to a lot of catch-and-shoot, using Joakim at the high post because hes such a great passer and a facilitator, James explained. Also getting the ball into Luols hands, as well, because hes a really good offensive player, as well, so they do a good job of getting everybody involved in their offense, not having their MVP out there.
Bosh added: They all play a certain type of way. They play physical basketball and we pride ourselves on being able to play a bunch of different styles, and they present a unique challenge. They play a lot of good team ball. They have a very unique defense, where they really try to slow the pace down a little bit, so we just have to make sure we play sure our game. Usually, the team that plays their game, where theyre in their comfort zone, is the aggressor and we want to play our style of basketball.
Its always a challenge as a player, putting everything to the test, putting your skills to the test, intensity, focus. A national-TV game, of course. We know the energys going to be great and to be able to just showcase your talent, both team-wise and individually, its always a good time, he continued. We know how they play. Theyre going to crash the boards, its going to be physical. You know theyre a paint team, they want to get down there and get in the paint.
Wade concurred: Its a competitive team and we enjoy playing competitive games, and this team is very competitive and theyre physical, whatever they let the game be called. For us, were just going to continue to try to play our game and well see what happens from there, but I think the Bulls are a team who I think surprised a lot of guys early on without D-Rose and making some offseason moves, and still be the team we became accustomed to. When you talk about defensively, rebounding the ball, theyre still that team and a very tough team to play, a gritty team, so theyve got some very good wins, especially on the road, and weve got to come out and protect home court.
Even Bulls players you wouldnt necessarily think of immediately -- veteran guards Rip Hamilton and Kirk Hinrich, for instance -- are on Miamis radar.
Theyre two good NBA players. Rip is a world champion and hes done so many great things in this league, James said. Kirk has always been solid, no matter where hes been. His first stint in Chicago, in Atlanta and now back in Chicago, hes been really good, not only for the team hes been on, but for this league. We respect everyone.
Wade added: Rip is one of those guys, since Ive came in the league, Ive had multiple battles with. You play guys in the Eastern Conference Finals and youre going to have those war marks, war wounds, and weve had that, so weve had many battles, but I respect Rip as a player and what hes been able to do consistently in this league from that standpoint. So, he brings the best out of me and I feel I do the same.
One things for sure: Miami is a game that every opponent gets up for, but unlike other opponents, the Heat will be equally ready for the Bulls. That said, the visitors to American Airlines Arena want to maintain the same approach thats served them so well during Thibodeaus tenure.
Thats why you want to build the right habits, so you dont want to change your approach for any game. You want to be consistent, you want to do the same things to get ready for an opponent: know them well, know what youre trying to get to, analyze their strengths and weaknesses and then, you have to go out and execute, the coach said. Its the next game and again, from the start of the season, we didnt want to change. We wanted our approach to improve every day, get better and hopefully be playing our best basketball at the end of the year, and be healthy.