The Miami Heat, losers of two straight games on the road after having ripped off 13 consecutive wins away from South Beach, have a mighty test on Saturday night in a visit to the Chicago Bulls. The game (8 PM Eastern on NBA TV) pairs off the East's new money; the Bulls and Heat were both in the bottom half of the conference's playoff bracket the last two seasons, but now find themselves fighting with the Boston Celtics for top honors in the East.
The Heat just briefly triumphed over Boston atop the conference before the back-to-back losses to the L.A. Clippers and Denver Nuggets. The Bulls follow closely in the No. 3 spot, three games behind the Heat and four games behind the Celtics.
Of course, the Bulls have to watch their own backs, as the Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic breathe down their necks. The Magic dropped a pair of heartbreakers this week; had those games gone the other way, Orlando would be ahead of Chicago right now. That's how small the margin of error among these teams has become. A game here, a game there is all the difference in the world when it comes to home court advantage.
LeBron James' status for the Heat's visit to Chicago is unknown. But Dwyane Wade, a Chicago native, will play. He'll battle Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls coach who reformed Boston's defense over the past three seasons. During last year's first-round series between the Celtics and Heat, Wade shredded Boston for 33 points a game on 56 percent shooting. But the Celtics held down the rest of Miami and rolled 4-1.
The difference now is that Thibodeau doesn't have Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett, and Wade has Chris Bosh and, hopefully, LeBron. Despite the talent difference, the Bulls do have the league's very best defense (just over the Celtics, unsurprisingly). The Heat have the NBA's No. 4 offense. Something's gotta give. (And despite Chicago's mediocre offense, Carlos Boozer and Derrick Rose can create chaos and beauty at the same time at any point.)
If LeBron doesn't play, the ability of Boozer and Taj Gibson to hold back Chris Bosh as the Chicago guards (Keith Bogans, unfortunately, and Rose and Ronnie Brewer) and Luol Deng work to limit Wade's freelance penetration will be vital. Should King James suit up, Deng will draw the most difficult task in the NBA against him while Wade earns a bit more space to wig out. It should be a fun battle either way.