The Miami Heat appear to have found their rhythm following Dwyane Wade’s injury, climbing above .500 for the first time in nearly four months. To remain there, the defending champs will have to beat a Chicago Bulls team that has frustrated them all season.
The Bulls try to sweep the season series from the Heat for the first time in 15 years when they meet in Miami on Wednesday.
Chicago (35-27) returns to AmericanAirlines Arena for the first time since pounding the Heat 108-66 in the teams’ season opener Oct. 31.
The Heat (30-29), who eliminated the Bulls in six games the first round of the playoffs last season, received their championship rings before that game, and Chicago then handed them the worst loss in NBA history for a defending champion on opening night.
The Bulls won the next two meetings at the United Center, and can sweep the season series Wednesday for the first time since winning all four games in 1991-92.
“We have to get ready for Chicago,” Heat center Alonzo Mourning said. “We owe them, big time. They have definitely gotten the best of us this year.”
Miami has been without NBA finals MVP Wade due to a dislocated left shoulder since Feb. 22. After losing two of their first three games without the star guard, the Heat won their third straight Monday, 88-81 over Atlanta to push their record over .500 for the first time since they were 3-2 on Nov. 10.
“Feels pretty good, but nothing to be happy about,” Shaquille O’Neal said about moving above .500. “I’m not going to be happy until we win the whole thing.”
O’Neal, who turned 35 on Tuesday, had 14 points and nine rebounds against the Hawks and is averaging 20.7 points and 9.3 boards in six games since Wade’s injury.
The 14-time All-Star had just seven points on 3-of-10 shooting and five rebounds in the season opener, the only game he’s played against Chicago this season because of a knee injury.
The Heat have won a season-high nine straight at AmericanAirlines Arena, and are 35-1 at home in February and March since O’Neal joined the team three seasons ago.
The Bulls, meanwhile, have won two in a row at AmericanAirlines Arena after dropping their previous 11 trips there.
Chicago defeated Milwaukee 126-121 in overtime Sunday behind the best performance of Ben Gordon’s career. The guard scored 20 of his 48 points in the fourth quarter as the Bulls erased an 18-point deficit in that period.
“I don’t hear anything,” said Gordon, averaging 32.3 points while making 16 of 32 3-pointers in his last four games. “I just block everything out. I don’t get tired. I feel like I can run for days. It’s a good feeling. It motivates me, makes me want to work harder.”
Gordon had just six points on 1-of-9 shooting in the season opener against the Heat, but followed that up with two outstanding games against them. He had a then-career high 40 off the bench in the Bulls’ 109-103 win Dec. 27, and scored 34 points on 11-of-17 shooting in their 100-97 victory one month later.
The Bulls have won three straight and six of their last eight. They haven’t won four in a row since a five-game run from Dec. 11-19.
Sunday’s win moved Chicago eight games over .500 for the first time since it was 28-20 on Feb. 3. They have not been nine games above the break-even mark since finishing the 2004-05 season 47-35.
The Heat will be without another key player Wednesday, as Jason Kapono will miss an “indefinite” number of games with a sprained left ankle, coach Pat Riley said. Kapono, the NBA’s leading 3-point shooter at 51.3 percent, was hurt in the win over Atlanta.