MIAMI – A Sunday matinee matchup, with the top two teams in the Eastern Conference rekindling their playoff rivalry from a season ago.
Derrick Rose says it’s just another game.
LeBron James offers a similar sentiment.
Odds are, the past two NBA MVPs aren’t being entirely truthful in their analysis.
Rose and the Chicago Bulls visit James and the Miami Heat on Sunday, the first meeting this season between the teams with the East’s two best records to date. Chicago won all three regular-season games last season by a combined eight points, before the Heat captured the conference finals in five games and capped that series with a wild comeback on the Bulls’ floor.
“The hype is going to be crazy for this game,” Rose told reporters in Chicago on Friday night. “Just can’t buy into it.”
James concurred after the Heat finished practice Saturday in Miami.
“We hope the fans are excited about the game, but as far as the most-hyped game (of the season so far), I don’t think so,” James said. “We enjoy it. We’ve got those types of guys who love the big stage, if that’s what you want to call it. It’s going to be a good game. We’re looking forward to the challenge and I know they are as well.”
Chicago will leave Miami on Sunday atop the East standings, no matter the outcome, up by either one or three games in the conference race — almost an ancillary point. Instead, Sunday seems almost more about landing the first blow in what could be the start of as many as 11 meetings between the teams this season.
The Heat surely recall losing the three nail-biters against Chicago a year ago, then getting run out of the United Center in Game 1 of the East finals.
The Bulls surely recall that series-opening win was their last against the Heat last season, and how Miami rallied from 12 points down in the last three minutes of Game 5 to prevail and earn a spot in the NBA finals.
“It’s the team that eliminated us last year,” Bulls centre Joakim Noah — who famously called Miami “Hollywood as hell” after that playoff series — said Friday night in a video posted to the team’s website. “And everybody will be waiting for that game. It’s a game that as soon as that schedule came out, that’s definitely the game that you circle, that you come ready for.”
Motivation will not be in short supply, on either side.
Healthy bodies, on the Chicago side, may be a bit lacking.
Rose, the reigning MVP, is playing through some nagging issues, including a sore left big toe. Guard Richard Hamilton has always been a strong defender against Miami’s Dwyane Wade, but sat out Friday with a bruised right thigh. And forward Luol Deng, who has averaged 18.7 points in his last 10 games against Miami (including playoffs), is saying he does not expect to play for at least another few days because of a torn left wrist ligament.
Plus, it’s the start of a nine-game road stretch for Chicago, though this one in Miami is the only one generating any buzz right now.
“Everybody’s trying to blow the game up,” Rose said. “But we’re not worried about that.”
The Heat had 15 players available to choose from when setting a lineup Friday, the first time that’s happened this season.
Wade returned from a two-week absence because of a sprained right ankle to score 28 points in Miami’s 99-89 win over the New York Knicks, adding five steals, four assists and two blocks. James finished with 31 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, already the fourth time this season he’s had that stat line or better.
It didn’t take long after Friday’s game for the Heat to start talking about Chicago.
“Two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference going at it,” Wade said. “It’s always going to be a great battle when Chicago and the Heat play each other. We’ve got to get the first one on our home floor.”
The teams are different — Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said both are better — than what was on the floor in last season’s East finals. Chicago clearly upgraded by adding Hamilton, and Miami’s rotation got deeper with the signing of Shane Battier.
The rivalry, however, remains.
“It’ll be a little different, but the principles are the same,” Wade said. “They live on their defence and obviously this year we’ve been scoring, but our defence is what wins games and hopefully one day wins championships for us.”