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The Heat hate is fading.
The Bulls' first showdown with their primary rivals for the 2011-12 Eastern Conference crown (a 97-93 loss yesterday afternoon) brought it all back - the negative obsession that seethed through last season. Especially by the time last year's playoffs rolled around, the only thing the vast majority of NBA fans cared about was that someone, anyone, knock off Miami.
The Magic couldn't do it and neither could the Bulls. But miraculously enough, an old and fragile Dallas Mavericks team held together just long enough to eke out a win in six games in the Finals.
After LeBron James had "taken his talents to South Beach" to join Dwyane Wade (the Favre-ian spelling of the first name is correct by the way) . . . after silky smooth-shooting power forward Chris Bosh had spurned the Bulls to officially give Miami absolutely over-the-top talent . . . after the Heat had held a "championship style" celebration before playing a minute together . . . they went down and they went down hard.
This time around there is a different feel. The lockout extended the off-season and everyone affiliated with the league took a hit. James was in just about perfect form right from the start of the season and quickly reminded fans what an amazing player he is - especially in the first three quarters. Another super team may be coming together on the West Coast (the Clippers with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin) and another super team will probably result from Dwight Howard almost certainly leaving the Magic during or after this season.
Perhaps the main thing is the simplest: time passed.
In retrospect, James and friends' transgressions have been relatively minor. The Decision television show on which he announced he was joining the Heat was a mistake. But it raised significant charitable funds. The preseason 2010 rally at which James and Bosh were introduced to thousands of Heat fans was dim-wittedly cocky. But the Heat received its comeuppance. The Mavericks showed that the whole of team basketball can still prevail over the sum of a collection of superstars.
And there is the fact that the league operates with a relatively restrictive salary cap and an even more so luxury tax, so it isn't as though the Heat is Steinbrenner's Yankees, spending far more than everyone one else to try to buy a title.
Now, I must admit I am a little biased when it comes to James. I saw him play in a high school all-star game at the United Center when he was a senior and he was spectacular. I remember in particular a bounce pass from half court to a streaking teammate who laid it in as being a particularly vivid demonstration of his vast potential.
And when James played in Chicago as a professional for the first time, I also had a chance to take in the game. I remember James piling up about a half-dozen assists in the first quarter to make sure his relatively weak teammates were into the game, then taking over in the fourth quarter and hitting all the shots the Cavaliers needed to finish off a victory. The Tribune called it "positively Jordanesque."
It is also funny that there is still a fundamental insecurity about the Heat both during games and off the court. Everyone affiliated with the team tries so hard to be cool but you can clearly see them straining. How about those ridiculous black-on-black uniforms, which they have worn previously this season but which certainly had their biggest audience on Sunday? You could easily imagine marketing guys saying "other teams may wear cool black uniforms like the Raiders or the White Sox but ours aren't just blacker than theirs, they are the blackest ever!"
And James and friends are still working out who should do what down the stretch of close contests. Sometimes James tries to just be the distributor but he is too talented to just play point forward. Sometimes he tries to take all the shots but he is too easily baited into relatively low percentage jump shots rather than going to the rim or fighting for good position in the low post.
As for the Bulls, Sunday's was a tough loss, especially on the heels of an even worse loss (at home) to the Pacers in the middle of the week. But this team has already shown enough this season for fans to begin to make plans for another long playoff run - unless at some point everyone goes on the injury list at the same time.
The home team is in for a tough stretch over the next few weeks. They play the terrible Wizards on Monday night but after a day off take on Doug Collins' much-improved 76ers in Philly and the Knicks at the Garden on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. And after that there are five more road games before a return home around Valentine's Day.
But with Joakim Noah finding his stride in the last half-dozen games and Derrick Rose still delivering routine transcendence of the kind that led to the NBA labeling him "The Chicago Contortionist" in last night's highlight package.
Rose's missed free throws were an absolute fluke (although the point guard will miss shots late when his coach plays him too many minutes - the 44 he played on Sunday were too many).
And soon enough, Luol Deng will return from injury.
Oh, and did I mention there are three more games with the Heat in the regular season alone?
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