That the Chicago Bulls aren’t going to win the NBA championship isn't exactly breaking news. For as well as they’ve played of late, considering the injuries and the lack of offensive firepower—sooner or later it’s all bound to take its toll.
And the Miami Heat want nothing to do with them.
This isn’t just about Chicago’s gutsy 95-88 overtime win on Sunday. Or the 20-point drubbing the Bulls handed the Heat back on December 5.
It’s not just about the two playoff series the teams have played over the past three years, although the rancor and acrimony they produced has only sharpened with time.
It’s about all of that, sure, but it’s also about something more, an unspoken recognition that, for all of their faults and flaws, this is a Bulls team on a mission—a mission to take down a top dog, even if it means their own physical annihilation.
Without Derrick Rose, the Bulls have turned to Joakim Noah as their spiritual bellwether and basketball anchor. Noah’s response? Only to churn out the best year of his NBA career, fashioning himself into a reliable playmaker to match his middle linebacker defensive presence.
But before Noah could channel his inner range, he first had to acknowledge its source.
In an interview with ESPN Chicago’s Nick Friedell shortly after Rose’s November 22 injury—a torn medial meniscus expected to keep him out for the remainder of the season—Noah admitted to having let Rose’s latest setback cloud what both Joakim and his team were capable of.
Then Noah acknowledged something that everyone around him has known for weeks -- he has been struggling to deal with the fact that Derrick Rose it out again after season-ending knee surgery. Noah has been in a funk since Rose went down Nov. 22 with a torn medial meniscus in his right knee, but in Thursday's game he racked up 17 points and 15 rebounds.
Shortly after that interview, Noah initiated what has become a career-defining tear: Since January 1, Chicago’s free-spirited center is averaging 13.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 6.2 assists on 51 percent shooting.
Fitting, then, that Noah would be Heat-Hater No. 1 on a team that seems to always find an extra gear whenever the defending champs hit the floor.
Speaking to CBS Chicago’s Cody Westerlund after Sunday’s nail-biting win, Noah tried to contextualize why he and his teammates try to save a little something extra for LeBron James and co.
Those guys (the Heat), they’ve ended our seasons a lot (twice in three seasons). That’s where the hate comes from. It’s not, ‘Oh, I hate this guy.’ It’s that these guys ended it – I want what they have. I want a championship, and I know to get there one day, we’re going to have to get through those guys. So that’s the hatred.
Which is fair enough, of course. If the best basketball player on the planet sent you and yours home two times in three years, you better believe there’d be a chip on your shoulder.
For his part, LeBron admitted his feelings were more than mutual during an interview with ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh ahead of the two teams’ opening-night showdown back in October, exclaiming, “We don't like them, they don't like us. It's not unheard of. We all know how it is."
LeBron knows how it’s been, anyway. While Chicago holds a 9-6 regular-season advantage over Miami dating back to the 2010-11 season, the Heat are 8-2 in their pair of playoff matchups.
So what is it about this season, exactly, that should have Miami quaking in their boots? What's changed to suggest Chicago is prepared to parlay winning the battles into winning the war?
It’s all about the playoff seeding.
If the season ended today, the Bulls would be locked into a 4-5 matchup with the Washington Wizards. While Chicago has dropped each of its two tilts against the Wizards thus far, let’s assume that playoff mettle and home-court advantage paired to propel the Bulls into the second round.
Meanwhile, it would be in Miami’s interest to do anything and everything possible to steal the No. 1 seed from the Indiana Pacers, whom the Heat narrowly beat a year ago thanks in large part to having hosted Game 7 on their home floor.
Now let’s say Miami finished atop the Eastern Conference and drew the New York Knicks—currently making one final, furious push for the postseason—in the first round.
The Knicks have taken four of the last seven meetings with the Heat. That, coupled with a heavy dose of season-salvaging momentum, could be good for a pair of wins at least.
At that point, the stage would be set for another playoff showdown. Knowing, perhaps, that theirs is a postseason pivoting on borrowed time, the Bulls would understandably view dethroning the two-time champs as a kind of title in its own right.
Does Chicago have the offensive firepower to match Miami’s league-leading offensive prowess for an entire seven-game series? Most likely not.
Does Miami care to find out? We’ll let you be the judge.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of March 9, unless otherwise noted.