DEERFIELD, Ill. (AP)—They played six tense games in the first round of the playoffs last year, and their recent history includes hard fouls and harsh words.
“They want to make it a rivalry,” the Heat center said. “If I’m walking down the street and you say to me, ‘We’re rivals,’ we’re not rivals,” he said. “You have to do something to me for us to become rivals. It’s not a rivalry. You have to do something before it’s a rivalry.”
The Heat have a championship to defend. The Bulls have higher expectations after consecutive opening-round exits.
And here they are, standing in each other’s way again with another first-round series set to begin Saturday at the United Center—two rivals ready to go at it. Or are they rivals?
“I don’t know,” Bulls coach Scott Skiles said. “I’m not even sure what that means. I know it’s fun to talk about, but I guess I believe a rivalry means some team’s won the title once or twice and another team’s won it once or twice. They knock heads over and over again in the finals. First-round opponents? I don’t know.”
The tension between the Bulls and Heat dates back at least two years, picked up during the playoffs last spring and continued this season.
In Game 3 last season, Miami’s James Posey knocked down Kirk Hinrich in the open court, resulting in an ejection and one-game suspension. The Bulls called it a cheap shot. Posey said Hinrich didn’t see him. And Miami coach Pat Riley said afterward: “Maybe something happened at the other end, but I don’t like that. There’s got to be some dignity in the game.”
The Bulls won Games 3 and 4 and were leading in the third quarter in Game 5, before Miami rallied.
The Heat got their championship rings and saw the banner raised before the Bulls routed them in the season opener, 108-66. Chicago rookie Tyrus Thomas got a painful introduction to the NBA, suffering a broken nose while going for a rebound against Posey.
There was more drama when Chicago beat Miami 109-103 at the United Center in December. This time, Wade left with a sprained wrist after Hinrich tugged at his arm midway through the first quarter. And Posey got ejected again when he took down Luol Deng from behind in the fourth quarter.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s just competitiveness,” Hinrich said.
Hinrich found himself in a mini-storm this week after he was quoted as saying, “We should’ve won last year’s series, honestly. We felt we should’ve won Game 5. So we’re confident.”
The Heat took exception, and Hinrich didn’t understand why.
Wade said, “They wanted us. They wanted this opportunity. Here it goes.”
For the Bulls, it’s a big opportunity.
They made a splash in the offseason when they lured four-time defensive player of the year Ben Wallace away from Detroit with a four-year, $60 million contract, and they did it with the idea of advancing past the first round. They expected to contend in the Eastern Conference, and had control of the second seed until losing to New Jersey in the season finale.
That dropped them to the fifth seed and into a first-round matchup with the Heat. The winner likely will meet top-seeded Detroit in the second round.
It’s a difficult scenario for the Bulls. The Heat, too.
“It’s not as much a matchup problem because we have some matchups that aren’t very good for them and they do for us,” Riley said. “It’s more of a philosophical thing about how they play. They’re high energy—running, drive and kick, pick and roll kind of team that raids the offensive board. They’ve got a lot of moxie when it comes to that kind of game.”
Miami has been through quite a bit this season.
O’Neal missed 42 games, most because of knee surgery, and averaged a career-low 17.3 points. Wade missed 23 games late in the season with a dislocated left shoulder and has been bothered lately by knee tendinitis.
The Heat had everyone—coaches and players—healthy and available for one game during the regular season, which explains their 44-38 record.
Chicago (49-33) took three of four from Miami during the regular season, but O’Neal missed two of those games and Wade missed the final meeting. Having homecourt advantage should help the Bulls, considering they were a conference-best 31-10 at the United Center.
“We’re playing the world champs, we have homecourt,” Skiles said. “It’s a great opportunity.”