Bulls harbor no hate for Heat
The Heat may be the NBA's least likeable franchise, but the Bulls don't resent them
DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Anyone looking for a grudge match in the NBA's Eastern Conference finals might want to consider ESPN Classic, because the Bulls just aren't biting.
What was Luol Deng thinking last summer when LeBron James made "The Decision," a choice that immediately turned his new team into a combination of the '89 Detroit Pistons, the '75 Philadelphia Flyers and the '07 New England Patriots before it had played a single game?
"I was in Kenya in a refugee camp in Kakuma and they didn't have any TV," Deng said Friday. "I heard about it a few days later. But I really thought they were going to be a great team. Right away I could tell they were going to be in [the running] for a title."
Not exactly bulletin board material, but perhaps suitable for framing in a Heat gift store. While the Heat were inciting the wrath and resentment of seemingly every NBA fan outside South Florida, the Bulls reacted much like they did after defeating the Atlanta Hawks to clinch their semifinal series Thursday night.
With the quiet resolve to simply move on.
"We just want to get ready for the next step," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "I think that's important. We can't change our approach. That's how we got here."
The Bulls have been installed by Vegas bookmakers as 2-to-1 underdogs to defeat Miami, which is just fine with them.
"We take it for what it is, us against the world," Derrick Rose said. "That's the way we're going to look at it."
It certainly didn't look that way for most of the season.
While the Bulls shook off injuries to two key players early and rather seamlessly absorbed six new players, the Heat stumbled under the pressure of expectations. And while the Bulls fought for the No. 1 seed in the East and forged the best record in basketball, the Heat looked as if they had crumbled -- a loss to the Bulls in early March prompting Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to tell the media that his players were crying in the locker room.
If the Heat were looking for sympathy, they clearly weren't going to get it. Nor was anyone going to buy into the Heat as victims when Wade proclaimed, "The world is better now since the Heat is losing."
At the time, Miami had come out of 10 meetings with the Bulls, Celtics, Lakers and Spurs with just one victory. James had missed four potential game-winning baskets in the past 11 games. And the Heat had lost five of their past six.
People couldn't pile on fast enough.
"I do chuckle a little bit when they sort of complain about the scrutiny they get," Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said of the Heat at the time. "My suggestion would be if you don't want the scrutiny, don't hold a championship celebration before you've even practiced together."
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While the Heat couldn't contain themselves after defeating the Celtics in their second-round series, once again prompting allegations of over-celebrating, the Bulls reacted to winning the Atlanta series with little more enthusiasm than beating the Hornets in February.
"They had their reasons," Deng said of Miami's championship-like reaction. "They really respect Boston. They went through a lot losing to them, and one of the reasons they got together was to beat them. We're just happy to be here. We just beat a very good Atlanta team."
If the Heat had not won an NBA title just five years ago and James had not made it to the Finals four years ago, it might be easier to swallow. Then again, only the Heat can know how difficult it has been to reach this point.
"Everything went through my mind," James said of his outpouring of emotions after defeating the Celtics. "Finally getting over this hump against this team. Everything I went through this summer with 'The Decision' and deciding to come down here to be a part of this team because I know how important team is to this sport and all the backlash I got from it."
While team play is already a major theme in this series, it is ironically the Bulls getting credit for making the most of it. But then, they don't care about themes, either.
"This is the Eastern Conference finals; it's not about headlines," Joakim Noah said. "It's about winning basketball games."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.