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SportsMondayTuesday: The Bulls' One And Only Shot

By the time a fan draws a broad conclusion about his team this NBA season (which will feature 66 games in about 120 days, meaning more game days than off days for the next four months), the squad will have played two more games.

But there is no denying one central fact about this year's Bulls, who dropped a turnover-marred (20 in all) 99-91 decision to Golden State late last night to even their record at 1-1: This will probably be this group's one and only shot.

The current team, which bears an extreme resemblance to the one that lost convincingly to the Miami Heat in last year's Eastern Conference final, will need to make progress in 2012 and the only way to really do that is to knock off Miami. And that will be a task taller than Yao Ming.

The thing that most struck me about the Christmas Day quintuple-header that kicked off the season wasn't Derrick Rose's improvisational, ultra-clutch shot (although that game-winning floater for an 88-87 victory over the Lakers was a thing of beauty) or Luol Deng's impressive all-around game in the final few minutes.

Around the NBA it wasn't Carmelo Anthony pouring in just enough points (37) to lead the Knicks past the Celtics. And it was wasn't Kevin Durant picking up where he left off (leading the league in scoring last season) by scoring 30 points in a 97-89 Thunder victory over Orlando that wasn't that close.

Nope, the most important development on opening day was the re-realization that LeBron James is still faster and stronger than everyone else. Anyone who watched the Heat crush the defending champ Mavericks as James constantly put the defense on its heels by either beating it down the floor in transition or bullying his way into the lane virtually at will was reminded of the fact that when he puts his mind to it, James is just about unstoppable.

The big question will again be whether James will be able to put his mind where he wants it to be when the games matter most. He failed to do that for the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference final in 2010 and for the Heat in the NBA Finals in 2011. Maybe James will continue to choke away the biggest games but it is only common sense to note that if he and his teammates continue to take their team to the limit, they will break through sooner than later.

Anyway, if the Bulls can't beat the Heat this year, Dwight Howard looms. His coming to Chicago is conditioned on one thing of course - that Orlando's soon-to-be free agent uber-center comes to his senses. In the preseason, the word was Howard had told the Magic that he wanted to be traded to either New Jersey, New York or the Lakers. But he and his advisors have to know that Howard's best chance to win championships is to team up with Derrick Rose.

Howard could force a mid-season trade and if that happens, all of this is off. But the best recent intelligence is that the Magic are going to hang onto the center until the off-season and until they are absolutely convinced he will take less money to sign a contract with another team than he would if he re-signed with the Magic (free agents' original teams can pay them 10 to 20 percent more than outsiders). If the Magic finally break down and determine Howard will not return to the land of Disney, there is a very good chance the Bulls will offer them the best package of replacement big men (probably Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson) to go with whatever else the Magic might demand in return.

One more note:

Don't look now but the next Toni Kukoc might be on the horizon. The current Bulls brass remembers better than anyone how Jerry Krause used to over-sell prospects, especially the Croatian Kukoc. When the roly-poly former general manager did that he of course set them up for almost certain failure. But Kukoc managed to weather sky-high expectations from fans and even more importantly, from Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, on his way to a stellar career capped off by an important reserve role during the Bulls' second three-championship run from 1996-98.

So don't expect Bulls GM Gar Forman to proclaim Nikola Mirotic anything other than a fascinating prospect who has taken his game to the next level in the Euro-League so far this winter. It must be said though that Mirotic (6-10) is almost as long as Kukoc (who was listed at 6-11) and he can really shoot it. The 20-year-old capped off a run of recent success with Real Madrid by being named the Euroleague player of the month for December, leading his team, long a power across the Atlantic, in both scoring and rebounding.


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