As I watched the Miami Heat go through the playoffs this year, there was a difference from the team that came up short in the 2011 Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. Last year, I dismissed the Heat as just a bunch of talented individual players. At that point in time, the assessment was correct. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade struggled with co-existing on the court effectively and Chris Bosh did not look like the same player he was during his days with the Toronto Raptors. These reasons, along with inconsistent bench production, was a major reason why the Mavericks were able to upset the Heat in six games.
This year, I figured the Heat and the Chicago Bulls would square off again in the Conference Finals However, due to unforeseen circumstances, the Boston Celtics were waiting instead. After falling behind 3-2, James delivered in Game 6 with 45 points and 15 rebounds, to help keep Miami's season alive and the Heat went on to take Game 7 as well. When the Finals rolled around, I wrote an article picking the Heat to win in six or seven games. A lot of fans did not agree because they felt the Oklahoma City Thunder would run the Heat out of the building with their youth and athleticism. While the Thunder did begin the series with an impressive 105-94 win in Game 1, the Heat went on to win the next four games, to capture the team's first title since 2006.
What does the Heat winning it all mean for Bulls fans? One word - trouble. After crumbling on the big stage in the Finals last year, James played with more determination in this series than I have seen in quite some time. No longer was he deferring to Wade or anyone else to take the big shot. If the game was on the line, he was going to be the player to either win it, or lose it for the Heat and that changed everything. With James leading the way, both Wade and Bosh were more than happy to take a back seat. The play of their second unit also progressed rather nicely. Shane Battier, Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem and even rookie point-guard Norris Cole, all played huge roles for Miami as they put behind them the demons from 2011.
With Derrick Rose expected to miss at least half of next season and Luol Deng scheduled to miss the early portion of it, the Bulls will be a .500 team at best and will be in no shape to compete with the Heat or any of the other good teams in the conference. In fact, it's probably safe to say the Bulls will not be a contender again until the 2013-2014 season and even that prediction will heavily depend on roster changes they make between now and then.
When we lost to the Heat last year, I thought the Bulls were one or two pieces away from overtaking Miami, but sadly that is no longer the case. Not only did the big three finally learn how to play with one another, the Heat have also learned how to win playing team basketball, something they were unable to do a season ago. This transformation enabled the Heat to be kings of the NBA this year and it is possible they could be the team to beat next year as well.
James Tillman III is a resident of the Chicago-land area, who has been a Bulls' fan since the 1987-1988 season. James is also a Featured Fan Sports Contributor for Yahoo and a Sports Journalist for Sports Rantz Magazine. For discussions about the NBA and NFL, Follow him on Twitter @jtillman9693.
"Heat looks to be the team to beat next season too", Mark Potash, Chicago Sun-Times
"Rose's knee injury, James-led Heat stand in way of Bulls title", Rick Morrissey, Chicago Sun-Times