As Derrick Rose continually dominated the Miami Heat's ball boys during pregame warmups at AmericanAirlines Arena, it became increasingly clear that the Chicago Bulls were largely playing for the future these past two weeks.
The question now is whether with playoff victories over Chicago in two of the past three seasons, the Heat have broken the Bulls' spirits to the same degree that they did with the Boston Celtics, when consecutive playoff losses to the Heat led to the free-agency loss of Ray Allen and a willingness by Danny Ainge to shop any and every leftover piece.
For the Celtics, the remake figures to continue this summer, possibly with a $4 million payoff to Paul Pierce by the team's June 30 buyout deadline, potentially with the retirement of Kevin Garnett. About the only given is Ainge confirming this past week that Doc Rivers would be back as coach.
But it's the Bulls who figure to retain the Heat's attention going forward.
While LeBron James certainly had his lockdown moments against Rose in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, what the 2013 East semis showed is that the Bulls at least have someone willing to take on the challenge of LeBron-stopper, in Jimmy Butler.
Then there is the Joakim Noah factor, with the Chicago center never quite right against the Heat due to a foot issue that the Bulls now say could require an offseason surgical option.
The one thing we know about Tom Thibodeau is that he knows only one way, and that's to push his team every moment the clock is ticking. That could have the Bulls pushing the Heat for homecourt advantage for their next postseason meeting.
As much as anything, the Bulls left AmericanAirlines Arena on Wednesday night believing they were capable of more. Noah said it. Carlos Boozer said. With Hinrich or Deng there would have been another defensive deterrent in place, affording Noah the opportunity to pay more attention to Chris Bosh on the perimeter. With Rose, Deng and Hinrich, the Bulls' reserves who masqueraded as starters would have been better positioned to match the Heat's bench.
Just as the Heat have done in recent years in finding quality, low-cost bench pieces, so, too, has the Bulls' front office proven capable in that regard, after many questioned their 2012 offseason bench losses of Omer Asik, C.J. Watson, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and John Lucas III.
With the Knicks' window closing due to age and Amare Stoudemire's knees, with the Brooklyn Nets so utterly mismatched, with the Atlanta Hawks poised for life without Josh Smith, with the Indiana Pacers' ability to look both awesome and awful in the same week, with the anticipated implosion of the Celtics, the Heat's primary East focus moving forward figures to be the Bulls.
The complete Bulls. Not what was on display in the East semifinals.
"The thing about our team," Boozer said in his parting comments at AmericanAirlines Arena, "for the three years we have been together, we have not been healthy in a playoff run yet. If we are next year, it will be scary."
No matter how free agency plays out around the rest of the league, there is no one available who stands to make as significant an impact as the return of Rose, to a degree already making the Bulls the NBA's 2013 offseason winner.
"We are," Noah said, "a young team that has experienced a lot at a young age. We are going to come back healthy and be able to compete with these guys for a long time."
Whether the Bulls can get over their Heat hump is another story. But a Rose-Butler backcourt certainly is an intriguing place to start.
IN THE LANE
LOTTERY VIEW: Comfortably removed from the NBA Draft lottery since the lamentable result of Michael Beasley with the No. 2 pick in 2008, the Heat nonetheless figure to be somewhat interested bystanders at Tuesday's drawing. Should the Cleveland Cavaliers, the No. 3 lottery seed, land the top pick, it would give them another chip to use in an expected bid to entice LeBron James back home in 2014. A jump by the Washington Wizards from their No. 8 seed would further upgrade the youthful core of John Wall and Bradley Beal, allowing them to possibly challenge the Atlanta Hawks for second-best to the Heat in the Southeast Division. Otherwise, the lottery largely stands as a bunch of bad teams who will need more than lottery luck in advance of what widely is accepted as one of the weakest drafts in years. (The Heat do not have a pick in either round.)
COMBINE CALLS: As much about weights and measurements as actual skill testing, the NBA Draft combine at least offered a lengthy list of all-important lengths. For University of Miami guard Shane Larkin the numbers came in at 5 feet 10 1/4 without shoes and 5-11 1/2 with shoes, weighing in at 170.8 pounds. The numbers for Hurricanes forward Kenny Kadji were 6-8 3/4 without shoes and 6-10 with shoes (at 241.6 pounds). University of Florida forward Erik Murphy came in at 6-8 3/4 without shoes and 6-9 1/2 with shoes (239.8 pounds). Also of local note were Tim Hardaway Jr. at 6-4 1/2, 6-6 1/4 (199.4) and Glen Rice Jr. at 6-4 1/2, 6-5 3/4 (210.8).
LARKIN'S VIEW: For his part, Larkin said at the combine that size is just a number. "Everybody says my height is going to hurt me in the NBA," he told reporters. "If you look at Chris Paul, Ty Lawson, J.J. Barea, Jameer Nelson, Tony Parker, Steve Nash, they're all smaller guys that made a career in basketball and made millions of dollars playing basketball. They make up for it with their IQ and with their aggressiveness and their toughness."
THAT TIME: Yes, it's about to start again, the talk of the Heat pursuing Greg Oden on the free-agent market. The buzz gained steam this past week when Ohio State draft prospect Deshaun Thomas told the News Herald of his workouts with the injury-riddled former Portland Trail Blazers center. "Man, he looks unbelievable," Thomas said at the Chicago pre-draft combine. "He's running. He's lifting weights. You might be seeing a comeback. He looks like he's ready to go. He's running, getting in shape. I'll tell you one thing, for a big 7-footer, that's all he does, running and getting in shape. He's looking right." OK, here we go again.
RISKY BUSINESS: To some, the decision by Marquette guard Vander Blue to leave school early was a bit of a surprise, considering it is possible he will wind up with no better than a middling second-round fate. But no one doubts the credentials of one of his advisers in the process. "Dwyane Wade helped me," he told the Journal Sentinel of his Marquette backcourt predecessor. "He pretty much told me to go with my heart. He can tell I'm more than ready to play at that level. It's just about doing it; I've got to be both feet in and just go as hard as I can. It was a big factor. D-Wade is like a big brother for me. He's always there for me."
KNIGHT SHIFT: Brandon Knight's future, at least as an NBA point guard, appears to be in the balance with the lottery and the Detroit Pistons' approach with their pre-draft interviews. In the wake of Knight, the Pine Crest product, being pushed away from the point by last season's acquisition of impending free agent Jose Calderon, Detroit spent the combine interviewing point guards Michael Carter-Williams and C.J. McCollum, with interest in face time with Michigan's Trey Burke, as well.
221. Minutes played by Bulls forward Jimmy Butler in the second round against the Heat, most in a five-game playoff series by a Heat opponent. The previous record was 220 by Penny Hardaway for the Orlando Magic in the 1997 opening round.
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