Heat Are Vulnerable, But Bulls Not Ready

Now that we’ve seen his house, his pool, his wife, his kids, his ride, his mobile phone, his swish shot from the balcony, his elderly buddies at the park, his fellow street cyclists and every other LeBron James image that advertisers could cram into a two-hour game broadcast, let me say this about the King of Basketball, the Coolest Kid at the ESPYs and the Almighty Force of American Sports:

He’s ready to win his third straight NBA title. He’s ready to win an unprecedented fifth MVP award in six years. He’s ready to become the first player to win three consecutive championships, three consecutive MVPs and three consecutive Finals MVPs.

I just don’t know if the teammates who’ve brought their talents to South Beach are good enough and healthy enough to help him.

Forget about Opening Night. As I’ve been arguing, the Chicago Bulls are too 1950s, too obsessed with old-school defense and don’t have enough pure scorers to help Derrick Rose win a championship, even if his explosions and hops prove better than ever, which we don’t know yet. That said, there are other challengers that can unseat the Miami Heat, who came awfully close to losing to San Antonio, remember, and would have if not for Ray Allen’s bailout jumper In Game 6. They could succumb to three potential breakdowns this season: (1) complacency from players not named LeBron; (2) Dwyane Wade’s health, perilous after years of body blows and two postseasons of delicate knee issues; and (3) the ongoing riddle that is Chris Bosh, who arrived as a borderline superstar and since has regressed as a shrinking violet in James’ mammoth shadow.

When he speaks of his fear of failure, his hunger to be the greatest player of all time and his “God-given ability and talent,” LeBron is to be taken seriously. “I’m at a point now where nothing else matters in basketball besides winning,” he said, per USA Today. “That’s what I’m here for. That’s where my passion lies. It’s where my work ethic lies. It’s my hunger to put up another banner in this arena. I have a drive that’s burning inside of me, and I want to continue to be successful.” That’s why he’s in the team weight room at 8 a.m., long before practice. And that’s why he used his computer tablet and a notepad to study every game tape from the Heat’s postseason and jotted down observations on how he could improve. He even did this during his summer honeymoon, risking having one less ring but staying married nonetheless.

Problem is, what you saw Tuesday night after the ring ceremony — balanced scoring, stifling defense, a strategic trapping of Rose and a combined eight 3-pointers from Shane Battier, Allen and Norris Cole in a 107-95 win — may or may not project to how the Heat are playing in May and June. They’ve struggled in two uneven journeys to championships, facing five elimination games when, by comparison, Michael Jordan’s Bulls dynasty played only two elimination games in its six-championship run. Those stumbles have taken a toll physically and emotionally, and when Wade dropped the b-word the other day, it suggested a mindset not necessarily conducive to a three-peat.

“Our goal here is not to get bored,’ said Wade, per the Sun-Sentinel. “Don’t get bored with trying to be great. Go out there every night, compete and understand that we’re the champions and represent ourselves as champions.”

That will be easier said than done when the playoffs arrive and they must survive the Indiana Pacers, their deepest competitor, especially on a talented front line. Then there are the Brooklyn Nets, who have added two traditional Miami antagonists in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. When coach Erik Spoelstra emphasizes that the Heat have to reinvent themselves to stay ahead of the emerging pack, he realizes that he and his team are venturing into the unknown and might not be the East’s best team anymore. The difference between describing the Heat in triumphant tones and disappointing tones was a few inches, which separated Allen’s shot from going in or hitting the rim in the Finals. Given such a slim margin, there really is no time to rest on laurels, which probably explains why James spoke of the Bulls with disdain before the game. “We don’t like them, they don’t like us,” he said. “It’s not unheard of. We all know how it is.”

The response was electric. Feeding off the emotion in American Airlines Arena after the banner raising, the Heat went on a 52-24 run to close out the first half, blowing up Tom Thibodeau’s defensive scheme and making Rose look skittish in his first game since his knee collapsed in April 2012. “It’s a team game,” a pleased James said afterward, per the Associated Press. “That’s what this team is put together for.” Where this team will be in seven months is anyone’s guess.

Same goes for the Bulls, who will need time to acclimate to Rose’s return. He was outplayed by Cole, a backup guard, and shot just 4 of 15 in scoring 12 points in 34 minutes. Rose made only 3 of 8 shots on his trademark drives to the basket and committed three turnovers during those forays, and five total. He received a Tweet from President Obama before the game, welcoming him back to the league after reconstructive knee surgery. While Obama is an ardent Bulls fan, he might want to devote time to widespread blowback over his lame health insurance website and the White House’s secret spying on heads of state.

“If anything, I’m disappointed in the loss,” Rose told the media. “My performance, I can easily change that by making shots and keep down the turnovers.”

And the knee? “My knee is good, man,” Rose said. “You don’t got to worry about that at all.

“Even with the performance that I had, it’s no pressure. Because I know I’m going to have a breakthrough game so my job is to continue to work hard and I know it’s going to come to me.”

Said Thibodeau of Rose’s re-debut: “I thought it was OK initially. I liked his playmaking in the first quarter. And then I thought that in trying to get us going we got in trouble but there’s still going to be some rust. I thought he played hard. I thought he had some good looks that normally he makes that I’m sure will fall for him. I thought it was a very physical game so that’s something that he has to get used to and he will.”

Thibodeau looks naked to the world when his players don’t execute his grand defensive plan, allowing 107 points and wide-open treys. “We’re not trying to pull close. There were a lot of corrections we have to make,” he said. “It always comes back to the same thing — our defense and rebounding. And if we could have taken better care of the ball early on, we would have been in position to win down the stretch.”

A better idea: Let Luol Deng leave next summer, make Carlos Boozer (31 points) an amnesty case and try to sign James next summer. OK, I promised I wouldn’t discuss LeBron’s sequel to The Decision at least until, oh, November. For now, the Heat are happy with rings and a late October statement, for what it’s worth.

“You never know what to expect when you’re trying to keep the main thing the main thing, and that’s the game,” Spoelstra said of the festive mood. “But you can’t deny the emotions and what a special moment it was for everybody in the organization. Because we know how difficult that was and how harrowing that was last season.”

Harrowing being the operative word.

It still applies.