Bulls to find out how they stack up against rival Heat

Written By BY JOE COWLEY Staff Reporter Posted: 03/24/2014, 06:48am

MIAMI — There might not be a better feel-good story in the NBA right now than the Bulls.

They lost Derrick Rose to a season-ending knee injury, traded Luol Deng for a smart economic future and are playing their best basketball of the season short-handed.

Now comes a trip to South Beach, where feel-good stories go to die.

No team knows that better than the Bulls. In 2010-11, the Heat bounced Rose and the top-seeded Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals. Last season, the Heat eliminated an overachieving Bulls team in five games in the second round of the playoffs.

The saga continues when the two hottest teams in the East collide Sunday. The Heat, though, might be without four-time NBA most valuable player LeBron James, who missed practice Saturday with a broken nose suffered Thursday against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

It would seem the Bulls would be catching a break if James can’t go. But the Bulls apparently would prefer to play the Heat at full strength.

‘‘We hope his nose is OK,’’ center Joakim Noah said playfully.

The Bulls have won five games in a row, so why not see how they measure up against the two-time defending champions?

‘‘For us, it’s what are we doing each and every day?’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. ‘‘Are we getting better? Are we putting everything we have into it? If you start looking at it and saying five-game [winning streak], 10 games or 30 games, whatever it is, the important thing is to not look backward and stay locked into getting ready for Miami.

‘‘We have to know them well. Obviously, they are a great team. They’re the defending champions, and everyone is chasing them. Just be ready for Sunday, nothing more than that. You don’t have to change anything, change our approach. We know we’re going to have to play hard and we’re going to have to play well.’’

The Bulls haven’t changed their approach against the Heat. Other teams, meanwhile, have shifted their attention from offensive rebounding to getting back on defense to slow down the Heat’s transition game. The Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers are playoff-bound teams that have dropped in offensive rebounding this season. The Pacers, for example, have dropped from third in offensive rebounding last season to 22nd.

Coincidence? Not likely, considering how focused the Pacers have been on building a roster that will be Heat-proof come May.

‘‘The layups and transition threes, there’s so much more of an emphasis on that now,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘So sometimes I think teams are making that commitment.’’

The Bulls seem to be among the exceptions. Thibodeau thinks his team is versatile enough to own the boards and still get back and slow down the Heat’s transition game.

‘‘I think you can do both,’’ he said. ‘‘Jo makes great effort to the boards and to get back, as does Taj [Gibson]. Sometimes it’s your willingness to commit to doing it. Your defensive transition is tied to your entire team. Your perimeter players, they can’t wait to see what happens.

‘‘You see it as the season goes on: The teams that are committed to being well-balanced, the first thing they’re doing is taking the transition baskets away.’’

Email: jcowley@suntimes.com

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