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Bulls must ante up to beat Heat

LeBrJames helped stifle Derrick Rose Eastern Conference finals last season. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

LeBron James helped stifle Derrick Rose in the Eastern Conference finals last season. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 23, 2012 9:51AM

It doesn’t matter whether it’s an 82-game regular season or the 66 thanks to the lockout.

Come April, the endgame will be the same: The Bulls will be the best team in the Eastern Conference.

They’ll be the best defensive team, they’ll have the deepest frontcourt, all while boasting the most exciting player in the NBA. Maybe the world.

No ifs, ands or buts.

One problem: That doesn’t earn you a ring.

As they are constructed today, the Bulls are elite in many ways. But they are not LeBron-proof, and unless chairman Jerry Reinsdorf is willing to incur a hit with the luxury tax, they will once again fall to the Miami Heat when it matters most.

Let’s review. Last we left Derrick Rose and his sidekicks in the Eastern Conference finals, the MVP looked worn down in fourth quarters against the Heat. That was because the Heat would throw all 6-8, 250 pounds of LeBron James at Rose in the final quarter, giving him nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

Not only is James bigger and stronger than Rose, but it’s almost criminal that a guy that size is that athletic.

Rose scored only two points on two free throws in the fourth quarter of Game 2 and two points on a basket in the final quarter of
Game 3. By the time overtime in Game 4 was complete, Rose had shot a combined 2-for-14 in the fourth quarter and beyond of Games 2-4, and the Bulls had lost three in a row.

No wonder he looked so dejected at the interview podium after the Heat’s Game 5 clincher.

“It was me,’’ Rose said, taking full responsibility.

Sorry, Derrick, it was you, and only you. That was the problem.

Not his play, but the fact that he was on an island.

The Bulls can say all the right things leading up to the opener on Christmas Day, but the tape doesn’t lie. The bar needs to be set at getting past the Heat, and unless Rose has a running mate in the backcourt to take pressure off of him, that won’t happen.

There’s the rub.

Priority No. 1 will be taking care of No. 1, with “The Rose Rule’’ about to earn the point guard a five-year extension somewhere between $100 million and $101 million. Money well spent.

The problem for the Bulls is Rose isn’t the only one getting a bigger allowance. Carlos Boozer still has four years and $60 million left on his contract, Joakim Noah’s five-year, $60 million deal begins this season and Luol Deng has three years with just under $40 million outstanding.

Throw in Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Omer Asik, Taj Gibson and C.J. Watson, plus a decision on Keith Bogans’ option, and duck your heads because the hard object just above is the ceiling on the salary cap.

Delusions about Jason Richardson, Caron Butler or Jamal Crawford stretching that Heat’s defense late in games are just that. Even with Crawford saying after the Atlanta Hawks’ playoff loss to the Bulls that he would like to return to Chicago, it’s hard to imagine that the shoot-first, ask-questions-later guard would take a $6 million paycut from last season to do so.

Richardson, who would be the ideal pickup for the Bulls, made just under $15 million last season. I know winning is important, but is it mid-level-exception important?

Butler? A nice dream. One that the Heat already happens to be in on.

That’s where Reinsdorf comes in.

If Reinsdorf makes the decision to bring the franchise into the luxury-tax threshold by adding a premier backcourt presence, it’s a whole different ballgame.

One that suddenly looks LeBron-proof.

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