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Heat still on top, but Bulls poised to challenge

Derrick Rose

Derrick Rose

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Updated: September 19, 2013 9:58AM

Miami, you’re on the clock.

After three consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals and back-to-back titles, the Heat showed its hand this offseason by keeping its core together to make at least one more championship run with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

But all bets are off after the 2013-14 season. After that, James can opt out of his contract with the Heat and reshape the NBA landscape.

First things first, though. Just because the Heat is going for a run at NBA history doesn’t mean it will get there. The opposition starts with the Bulls, who will have Derrick Rose back after he missed all last season recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

‘‘They’re the back-to-back champions, and when you think three-peat, you think Chicago,’’ Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler said of the Heat in a recent radio interview. ‘‘So we can’t let that happen.’’

At least six other teams will be thinking the same thing.


7. Golden State Warriors

The Warriors served notice their young stars are ready to take the next step, as Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes put the team back on the NBA map. But while they could score with any team in the league, elite offenses could answer. Out are Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry. In is Andre Iguodala, whom former Denver Nuggets coach George Karl said was the best defender he had coached since Gary Payton.

6. Houston Rockets

The ‘‘it’’ team in the Western Conference these days, the Rockets landed free-agent center Dwight Howard this summer to give star guard James Harden some serious help inside. Buyer beware, though. It’s easy to fall in love with the Rockets, but Howard is still flawed on the court and an even bigger enigma off of it.

5. San Antonio Spurs

It’s easy to sleep on the Spurs, whose brand of basketball enhances drowsiness. But greatness doesn’t always have to have swag. Back are Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter, both of whom were re-signed. Not much has changed for the Spurs this offseason, but it seldom does.

4. Brooklyn Nets

The Nets’ biggest problem last season was what several Bulls players expressed off-the-record: ‘‘a heartless team.’’ That played out in the first-round series between the teams, as the undermanned Bulls still sent the Nets home for the summer.The remedy? Add Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, and the Nets were instantly mettled.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

The core is in place to make another run at the NBA Finals and face the Heat, like it did two seasons ago. The glaring problem for the Thunder has been inside, and that might have been addressed in the draft with center Steven Adams and forward Andre Roberson.

2. Indiana Pacers

‘‘Sneaky’’ is the best way to describe the Pacers’ offseason. They re-signed David West and acquired Luis Scola in a trade that could put them over the top. Scola is a stretch big man who can do for the Pacers what Bosh does for the Heat, leaving Roy Hibbert to do what he does best: work on the inside and protect the rim.

1. Bulls

James sat at the podium after the elimination game that sent the Bulls home last season and called it ‘‘maybe the toughest close-out game of my career.’’ That was without Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich, as well as Joakim Noah playing on one good foot. If Rose stays healthy, the Bulls and Heat are on a collision course of epic proportions.

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