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Defending NBA champion Miami Heat view Bulls as a threat

West Team's Zach Randolph Memphis Grizzlies East Team's Joakim Noah from France Chicago Bulls go after loose ball  during

West Team's Zach Randolph of the Memphis Grizzlies and East Team's Joakim Noah from France, of the Chicago Bulls go after a loose ball , during the first half of the NBA All-Star basketball game Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, in Houston. (AP Photo/Lucy Nicholson, Pool)

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Updated: March 19, 2013 6:33AM



HOUSTON — The line of thought goes like this: There’s no reason for Derrick Rose to return this season because these Bulls can’t compete with the defending NBA champion Miami Heat even with him back on the court.

That’s one popular argument when the subject of Rose’s return arises, but Heat players and coaches don’t see it that way.

“They are an absolute contender,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It was such a shame that Derrick got injured last year. As a competitor, you never want to see anybody go down like that. They had the No. 1 team in the East last year for a reason. They have a great team. They’re well-coached. They have experience. We were expecting to meet them somewhere along the line last year.”

Bulls-Heat was the best rivalry in the Eastern Conference before Rose tore his ACL in Game 1 of the first-round series against the 76ers.

With Rose out, it has become an afterthought. The Celtics battled the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals last season, so Boston was foremost on the minds of the Heat when the season opened, but things have changed.

With All-Star guard Rajon Rondo out for the season and Rose likely coming back at some point, the Bulls are back to being an obstacle for a Heat team trying to win back-to-back championships.

“No doubt,” guard Dwyane Wade said when asked if the Bulls are a title threat. “Obviously, Derrick will come back when Derrick is ready, but the Chicago Bulls are always a contender because they defend. They play the game so hard. Whenever you do that on a consistent basis, you’re always a contender. Getting a star player like Derrick Rose back automatically puts you in that category.”

Marco Belinelli gives the Bulls a dimension. Nate Robinson adds scoring off the bench. Kirk Hinrich is a quality perimeter defender if he can stay healthy.

Few foresaw Jimmy Butler developing this quickly.

“I really don’t know,” Luol Deng said when asked how good these Bulls can be. “It always takes awhile for a team to get a chemistry, but if you add Derrick to any team, you know you’re going to be a better team, but at the same time, you just don’t know.”

The Bulls weren’t expected to be in this position. This was a season for the team to regroup, cut some salary and set the stage for 2013-14, when Rose is back to being his old self.

But things don’t always go according to plan. It’s about competing for championships. For a decade-plus after Michael Jordan’s departure, the Bulls weren’t in that position.

Now they have a shot at least, albeit a long shot.

“The Bulls are a very good basketball team,” Heat center Chris Bosh said. “They have that blue-collar type of vibe to them, and they make it tough on every possession, defensively and offensively. Just like any other good team, they play together.

“They’re still there. They beat us pretty good at our crib [earlier this season]. Just the fact that they have that confidence at home or on the road is huge for them. We’re going to have to play them a few times.”

The way LeBron James is playing, the Heat seems invincible.

But things happen. Injuries occur. Teams that appear impossible to beat at midseason can be vulnerable later.

“It’s still the case for us,” Wade said when asked if he considers the Bulls a chief rival. “The media don’t hype it up as much as they used to because Derrick Rose is not playing, but they came into Miami and beat us this year.

‘‘This is a very good team even without one of the best players in the NBA. This [Tom] Thibodeau team is very good. We look at them just like we look at the Knicks or the Celtics.”



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