Derrick Rose believes this year's Bulls team is different from any he played for during his pre-knee surgery seasons.
"No disrespect to any of my old teammates, but it seems like we're way more focused this year," Rose said Monday at the Berto Center. "We have a great chance to really contend for the title."
It all starts with a close look at the team the Bulls want to dethrone. Rose will make his return to regular-season NBA basketball in Miami against the two-time defending champion Heat on Tuesday.
There will be plenty of hype about Rose's return and getting to test his surgically repaired knee against LeBron James. But one of the biggest reasons the Bulls should feel optimistic against Miami this season has little to do with Rose.
Tuesday's opener also will mark the first time the Bulls get a chance to test their full defensive lineup against the Heat's Power Trio.
They'll start two strong defenders -- Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler -- at the wing positions. No player is going to shut down James, but both players are well-equipped to make James work for everything he gets.
When the Bulls lost to Miami in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, Deng guarded James full time and seemed to wear down late in games. Now Deng and Butler likely will share that role.
At the same time, Butler also is a good match for Dwyane Wade and Kirk Hinrich has consistently defended Wade well since they entered the league together in 2003.
With Joakim Noah ready to go after recovering from a groin injury that sidelined him for most of the preseason, the Bulls also have someone who can meet James and Wade at the basket. Noah probably has the best lateral quickness of any 7-footer in the NBA. Taj Gibson also is a strong defender and probably a better shot blocker than Noah.
Is this the lineup that can wear down Miami in a playoff series? It's way too soon to know that answer, but this will be the first trial run.
"Wade and LeBron present a number of problems," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said Monday. "I know with both of those guys, you can't guard them with single coverage. You need your entire team. I do like the versatility that Jimmy, Luol, Taj and Jo -- when they're on the floor, what that allows us to do.
"The big thing is you have to try to make those (Miami) guys work for their points."
Those 2011 conference finals games were closer than Miami's 4-1 win indicates. Trailing 2-1 in the series, Rose missed a late free throw that could have won Game 4 in regulation, and the Bulls went on to lose in overtime. In Game 5, the Bulls squandered a 12-point lead in the final four minutes.
The Bulls were a couple of conversions away from a 3-2 series lead in 2011, then missed out on a true rematch in '12 and '13 because of Rose's injury.
The two teams carry most of the same 2011 starters into this season. The big difference for the Bulls is having Butler -- potentially a better defender and scorer than Keith Bogans -- at shooting guard, plus Hinrich coming off the bench.
It's rare for an NBA team to field an elite defensive lineup in which all five players on the floor are competent scorers and also have a former MVP running the show.
"I always believed that our team defense is so good that anyone in the NBA who is guarding anyone has more confidence knowing the guys you're going to battle with," Deng said. "Our defense as a team is one of the best, and our big guys come over to help."
Sure, this will be Rose's first regular-season game since missing more than a year with a torn ACL. But that moment will pass quickly. The Bulls' defensive challenge will go further to determine whether they have a chance to beat the Heat as Eastern Conference champs this season.
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