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Greg Stoda: Miami Heat aren’t underestimating banged-up Chicago Bulls

By Greg Stoda - Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

They are professional basketball’s Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

The Chicago Bulls are what their nickname says they are: bullish.

Now they’re the Heat’s headache in the second round of the NBA playoffs beginning Monday night in AmericanAirlines Arena.

The Bulls qualified for the Eastern Conference semifinals with a Game 7 win Saturday night in Brooklyn during which they again demonstrated their remarkable resolve. They have been without superstar guard Derrick Rose (knee) all season, and were without guard Kirk Hinrich (calf) and forward Luol Deng (illness) in taking down the Nets.

So it is that the fifth-seeded Bulls arrive in South Florida for the first two games of the best-of-seven set against top-seeded Miami carrying that dangerous nothing-to-lose look.

And they’re plenty dangerous — steeped as they are in fierce relentlessness — all on their own.

“That’s their foundation and bedrock of who they are,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “We feel that’s the bedrock and foundation of who we are as well. You have two teams with similar mentalities. There won’t be a lot behind the curtain for either team. We know each other.”

The teams split four games during the regular season, and one of Chicago’s victories snapped the Heat’s 27-game winning streak.

Miami, which won 66 regular-season games and is the defending champion, will be a prohibitive favorite even though an argument can be made that the Bulls, if healthy, are better at three starting spots. Those would be point guard (Hinrich over Mario Chalmers), power forward (Carlos Boozer over Udonis Haslem) and center (Joakim Noah over Chris Bosh).

But the Heat, of course, have four-time MVP LeBron James and Dwyane Wade as his imposing, albeit sore-kneed, sidekick.

Might this be a replay of the Eastern Conference championship series two years ago, when the Heat won in five contentious games? Sure.

“They don’t back down,” Wade said. “It’s amazing how consistent they are. They always give themselves a chance.

“They’re kind of like the Boston Celtics in the sense that, no matter what happens, they won’t go away. They’ve got tough guys mentally and physically. They’re going to fight. ”

It’s a function of Chicago’s refusal to surrender to circumstance, and an eagerness to follow the physical and emotional lead of Noah, the former Florida Gators star. Nets guard Deron Williams’ summation of Noah as “a monster” for whom Brooklyn had no Game 7 answer is succinct and revealing. Noah also was the guy who two years ago said of the Heat, “They’re Hollywood as hell, but they’re still very good.”

There’s less of the “Hollywood” persona attached to the Heat these days than there was back then in the first year of the Wade-James-Bosh alliance, which ended in an NBA Finals failure. They have grown into their championship stature and seem more comfortable with themselves.

It’s not that sensationalism has disappeared as Miami’s trademark — not with James and Wade as showmen, it hasn’t — but there’s a pride the Heat take in, well, their Chicago-ness. The passwords after a Sunday practice session were that they have a “healthy respect” for the Bulls, but don’t consider them any more steadfast than they believe themselves to be.

“No matter what we think they are, them being the Bulls is enough,” Bosh said. “We’re going to have to play more physical. We know (the passion) they bring, but we’ll be ready. They’ve been through a lot. You can’t underestimate them no matter who’s out there.”

Nobody underestimates the Heat.

There is, however, at least a hint of in-house concern that Miami might be rusty after having gone more than a week without playing in the wake of a first-round sweep of Milwaukee. And the Heat are talking “we’ll see” and “day-to-day” coy regarding Wade’s availability.

“I’m on the right path,” said Wade, who was absent for part of the Milwaukee series.

It would be a surprise if he doesn’t play.

The Chicago surprise would be if Rose does. Maybe the same thing holds true regarding Deng, who recently underwent a spinal tap amidst concerns of viral meningitis, and Hinrich, too.

But it’s nothing the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band couldn’t handle, and the Heat know it.

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