MIAMI – The Miami Heat practiced with blocking pads, or at least ran a few drills with them, Monday in the small window when reporters and TV cameras are allowed to watch. Players and coaches on both sides talked about how rugged games always get between the Heat and the Chicago Bulls, the Eastern Conference rivals who seem to most resent the two-time defending champs’ creation.
And yes, there was much contact and banging Tuesday night in the two teams’ season openers. The Bulls’ Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler wound up on the bench in early foul trouble and coach Tom Thibodeau seemed to allude to the rugged play when talking about Derrick Rose‘s forgettable play and the meager four free throws he shot.
Forget physical, though, as the pivot point of Miami’s 107-95 victory, and whatever series of games plays out vs. Chicago over the next seven months.
This was and is going to be mental.
Starting Tuesday and continuing until one of them is eliminated next spring, the battles that will define this basketball war will pit all that Miami knows it has done and can do, against what Chicago thinks maybe and kinda hopes it can.
That is the gap between these teams, beyond the jaw-dropping talent of LeBron James, the twilight swagger of Dwyane Wade or the edges Miami’s other players enjoy in their matchups thanks to that uber-mismatch up top. It’s an experience and confidence gap that the Heat, after three straight runs to The Finals and back-to-back championships, enjoy over just about every opponent.
Only, relative to the Bulls, it’s a little more so.
Think about where the Heat are at this point in their championship run. Not “not five, not six,” to dust off some old snark, but two tucked away after the hard knocks administered by Dallas in The Finals in 2011.
James has figured it out. He’s at the peak of his skills and know-how. Wade sees something to stick around for and replenish. Everyone else on the roster is bolder and brasher as well.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra seems to be saying and doing all the right things, running a graduate school in winning while most of his counterparts are stuck coaching up the freshmen.
Even some of the oldest mental gymnastics in the manual — the that-was-last-year-we-haven’t-done-a-thing-this-year pitch — sounds fresh coming from Spoelstra. He has earned this status, too, after a year … OK, two years … hmm, maybe three in which his professional chops constantly were in question.
Let’s just say that, if Spoelstra were in charge of a healthcare Web site, it would have been ready for its rollout. The way Miami was Tuesday.
“What we talked about [at the start of camp] was starting the 28-day process of our burial of last year,” Spoelstra said earlier Tuesday. “The championship, as gratifying as it was, this [ring and banner ceremony] will be the culmination of it, where we put the last shovel of dirt on it, where we have to move on. This new challenge, it will be different. Last year was totally different from the year before, and you have to be able to embrace that. The competition is better, it’s different. Our team is different. Guys, where they are at stages of their career, is different.
“And our guys enjoy the difference of this new challenge.”
Miami’s players enjoy more than that; they enjoy a sizeable advantage in knowing how they have done what they’ve done. Not so much the Xs and Os of particular games they have taken but the resourcefulness in small moments, and spotting warning signs and early fraying, and all the other tricks and lessons that came hard against Dallas, so fast against Oklahoma City and against long odds in tight spaces against San Antonio.
“Where it helps us is when it hits,” Spoelstra said, pounding a fist into a palm, “and you start to struggle, we’ve been through it. We’ve been through it with all the noise and storylines and adversity. That we’ve been able to persevere and focus on what matters. That is sometimes tough if you haven’t experienced it as a group.”
That is what Chicago is facing, meeting challenges, making memories and filing them away. Rose’s return is a work in progress, evidenced by his 4-for-15 shooting Tuesday and five turnovers. The Bulls’ starting lineup — Rose, Deng, Butler, Carlos Boozer and out-of-sync-and-condition Joakim Noah — never had played together (owing mostly to Rose’s absence and Butler’s late blooming last season). The unfamiliarity showed at both ends. When Deng and Butler sat down, it got worse.
Meanwhile, James, Wade, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers and even Ray Allen and Shane Battier look sometimes like they never have played with anyone else.
“That’s a tough team,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. “We would like to think we have that chance to knock ’em off, but it’s a long season. It’s going to take a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of preparation to get to that point because they’re the two-time defending champs.
“We just want to do our jobs and build on the right things. That’s what we’ve done the last couple years, is building and building and building. Hopefully this year will be the year that it all pays off.”
Hope isn’t a plan, though. The Bulls find themselves squeezed between building and planning to remodel. A big summer looms for Chicago — from Deng’s free agency and Boozer’s possible amnesty to the comings-or-not-comings of Euro prospect Nikola Mirotic and, always, injury concerns with Rose, Noah and anyone who slogs through Thibodeau’s workloads.
The Bulls could use another big and another scorer, even as they try to gain the wisdom and solve the puzzle that took Miami repeated tries.
“You never really know until you know,” Bosh said. “That’s the main thing. You’re going to be tested. You have to overcome those tests and it’s going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.”
OK, we can hear Chicagoland — and Pacers-land, Thunder-land and Nets-land, too — thinking in unison, “Shaddup, Chris.” But proving him wrong is only one of the things still on those teams’ to-do list.
“Whether you’re going for six championships or whatever,” Bosh said, “you’re always going to face a moment where you have to completely trust the system, trust your teammates and trust yourself. You have to stay together. The first team to fall apart or split apart and not pay attention to those moments, those are usually the teams that come up short. And we’ve been on the side of both fences, so we understand.”
The Heat demonstrated that with their performance on ring night, while tossing one of those little tests the Bulls’ way on opening night. It’s a long season for the contenders and the pretenders, with time enough to learn but no guarantee that they will.