Sure it’s a big game for Eastern Conference playoff positioning Thursday at the United Center when the Bulls host the Miami Heat.
But it’s way more significant that just a playoff series or two or that the TNT studio team of Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson will be there to broadcast the game.
It’s a big game, agrees Smith, because TNT is the place for all the NBA to watch Thursday nights because there are no other games. And Bulls/Miami doesn’t only mean playoffs. It is two of the premier cities in the NBA trying to make the case to be the ultimate destination for the best of 2010 free agency.
Free agency wars? Bosh Bowl I?
“How they perform in the latter part of the season might dictate who stays and who comes and who doesn’t,” Smith, the onetime championship team guard for the Houston Rockets, said of why he sees Thursday night’s game so crucial. “Can one team create some style that becomes attractive or exciting? From a purely competitive standpoint in terms of the future, games like this are big.”
In other words, LeBron and Bosh and Boozer and Stoudemire and Johnson all will be off and watching, and does one want to play with Wade and for Pat Riley’s organization?
Or with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah in the home of Michael Jordan?
“It has to be a team that is close or in the playoffs,” believes Smith. “The big name guys are trying to win it all. They are not going to go to a situation similar to where they are at.”
So perhaps they watch and imagine themselves with Wade and enjoying the freedom of less defensive attention as the opponent concentrates on Wade. Or seeing themselves not having to do the two toughest jobs in the NBA, match up against the physical inside big guys and handle the ball and make the right pass to set you up, like the Bulls have with Noah, who is expected to play about 15 minutes to 20 minutes, and Rose.
Of course, it’s a vital game for both teams in terms of their playoff futures for this season.
The Bulls are currently ninth, two games behind Toronto, which lost badly to the Jazz at home Wednesday night. The Raptors have lost nine of their last 13, and eight of the losses have been by double digits. But the Bulls are in the hole without the tiebreaker.
Miami is tied for sixth with Charlotte, a game and a half ahead of Toronto and two and a half games behind Milwaukee for fifth. Everyone generally wants to avoid Cleveland by not being eighth and likely Orlando, who remains second. Boston and Atlanta are tied for third trying to avoid fourth and a potential second round matchup with the Cavs.
But none of the bottom four playoff teams in the Eastern Conference will be expected to advance. Teams like the Bulls and Heat are eying the summer and free agency for the chance to advance next season. They, along with the Knicks, are considered the three prime destinations for free agents, and those free agents can begin to project Thursday what life might be like in the future.
Smith, who played 13 seasons in the NBA out of the U. of North Carolina, doubts any of the free agents has made his decision yet.
“It depends on what happens solely in April and May (playoffs),” Smith said. “Everything depends on how they play. Do (their teams) exceed expectations or not meet them. If they meet the level, they stay. If not, they (probably) go.”
Smith said free agents will be watching to see what Wade does and says.
Smith said Miami is one of the favorite cities of NBA players, and that “Pat Riley is a guru all basketball players want to have some relationship with. But Wade has to be the m.c. and vocal about getting people there. If he doesn’t (say much about being there) that says a lot. Overall, the front office is going to have to prove (to him) they can get a player.”
Smith says New York, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles are cities “guys circle on the calendar when they go there, for shopping, going out, meeting. You never get a bunch of guys in the summer saying, ‘Let’s go hang out in Salt Lake City.’ Nothing against Salt Lake City, but you don’t get that call. Guys are going to L.A., Miami, New York, Chicago. You get those calls. Places people go on vacation.”
Smith believes East Coast and Southern guys don’t know Chicago as well, but it’s a strong pull for those from the Midwest. Smith also said he doubts anyone is intimidated by the Michael Jordan legacy anymore.
“That’s all wiped out now,” says Smith. “It’s the city itself. Chicago is a great summer destination location. Look at Paul Pierce (despite) all the Celtics championships. He’s viewed as a winner regardless of all the banners. He’s viewed differently because he won.”
In addition to the studio crew doing the play by play and color and Craig Sager, a Batavia native with some special Bulls and Heat colors for his eclectic outfit, TNT has some enticing gimmicks for the broadcast. They’ll have coverage on NBA.com during the breaks and commercials, which is when Barkley usually is watching Law and Order.
Perhaps some will be needed on the floor as well.
The last time the Bulls and Heat met the law was trying to restore order.
That’s when Kirk Hinrich was suspended for bumping referee Bennie Adams after a parade of Heat players to the free throw line, 32 free throws to 17. Wade became so frustrated with Hinrich riding him into a seven for 16 shooting game Wade took what Bulls players and Taj Gibson regarded as a dirty, cheap shot at Gibson. Brad Miller talked about seeing the Heat again. Wade said Miller needed to stop crying.
Eighth place fever?
The Heat won earlier this month as Jermaine O’Neal again had a big game, the second time this season he had a 20-points plus game against the Bulls without Joakim Noah playing. When Noah played against O’Neal earlier in the season, O’Neal had a quiet eight points and seven rebounds. O’Neal doesn’t much like contact. Miami is 2-1 over the Bulls this season and three and a half games ahead of the Bulls.
The Bulls have come to life again after that 10-game losing streak.
They’ve won two straight with Rose back averaging 25 points and 6.5 assists on 55 percent shooting in the two wins. Noah has returned in limited minutes, more symbolic presence than impact player at this point.
Though the change for the Bulls has been in defense, mostly in an attitude change of not feeling sorry for themselves with the injuries (Luol Deng remains out) and not, basically, giving up, which it looked like a few weeks ago.
Gibson has fought through his plantar fasciitis and is averaging a tough 12.3 points and 10.7 rebounds the last three games as the Bulls have held each team under 100 points, an average of 88 after giving up at least 100 for 12 straight games.
Opponents in the last three games are shooting a combined 38 percent, and the Bulls finally outrebounded someone against the Rockets Monday.
Hinrich also has been strong, averaging 14.7 points, seven assists and 2.3 steals in the last three. Flip Murray, playing a lot of small forward with Deng out and James Johnson often in foul trouble, is averaging about 13 points but firing up shots at an alarming 33 percent rate.
So nothing is going to come easy, and now starts the time to make up games. Three of the next seven for the Bulls are against Eastern teams in the last four playoff spots.
And the Bulls, at least on paper, have the most difficult schedule.
The Bulls have 12 games left with eight against teams with .500 or better records.
Toronto with 12 games left has six such opponents while the Bobcats have four and the Heat three. The Bulls do have the most home games, seven, so there’s a chance, albeit slim.
Smith said it would be good looking toward free agency to make the playoffs, but not essential. It may depend more on what you have and how you play. The Bulls have a chance to put on a show Thursday and the people they most need to impress likely will be watching.
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