MIAMI — In what is considered to be a renaissance era for exceptional point guards, the two-time defending N.B.A. champion Heat — who, in effect, play without one — welcomed the most intriguing of the little-man lot back to the regular-season grind Tuesday night.
As Heat players watched, the team’s championship banner was raised before the season opener
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were pleased to see Derrick Rose on the court again with the Chicago Bullsafter a full season lost to a harrowing knee injury. Both offered a standard platitude — “good for the league” — for a fellow member of the industry elite.
Then James, Wade and friends received their championship rings, watched the Miami franchise’s third banner rise to the rafters of American Airlines Arena and proceeded to coast to a 107-95 victory over Rose and the Bulls. The timing of the season-opening occasion could not have been a clearer admonition, a metaphorical pat on Rose’s head. Son, we’re not the same ring-less team you last played against.
The global N.B.A. village is thrilled to have Rose back attacking the seams of opposing defenses. He isn’t yet accustomed to the intensity of real games, but his knee looks fully repaired, and we can all agree he was right to hold himself out as the limping Bulls valiantly struggled against Miami last spring in the playoffs.
“He’s gotten better, man — you guys are going to see it,” said Bulls forward Carlos Boozer, who provided most of their Game 1 offense with 31 points, while Rose shot 4 for 15, scoring 12. “His point-guard skills have improved a lot. His passing is precise. His leadership is better. He trusts us more.”
The typically humble Rose agreed, acknowledging that watching from a different perspective, the bench, has made him a more learned floor general. He nodded to the questionable suggestion that this is the best Bulls team he has played on, though he graciously added, “No disrespect to my former teammates.”
No disrespect to Rose or the stalwart defenders in Coach Tom Thibodeau’s core lineup, but the Bulls at first glance did not look very deep (their bench was outscored by Miami’s, 30-6, over the first three quarters) or big enough. History also tells us that there have been few N.B.A. championship teams whose most dominant player was a superstar in miniature.
At 6-foot-1, Isiah Thomas comes to mind as the backbone of the 1989 and 1990 champion Detroit Pistons. John Stockton, also 6-1, came mighty close with his tag-team partner, Karl Malone, in Utah. But in the modern game, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, James, Wade and a few very large men have been the primary difference makers.
Tony Parker was San Antonio’s best player as the Spurs came within a stroke of good fortune of beating the Heat in the 2013 finals. But Tim Duncan played close to the level of his prime, when he keyed the Spurs’ four titles. Chauncey Billups was the glue to Detroit when the 2004 Pistons took out the Lakers in five games for the title. But he was no transcendent star, in the way Allen Iverson was when his Philadelphia 76ers fell in five games to the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers in 2001.
Rose, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry are part of a group that has been celebrated for elevating — though hardly inventing — the hybrid point-guard game, combining explosive scoring ability with playmaking flair. An earlier generation produced true visionaries in Jason Kidd and Steve Nash, but also the me-first indulgences of Iverson and Stephon Marbury.
It is no simple chore to balance blinding quickness and a soft touch with essential team needs. Iverson never did, but that didn’t stop James on Monday from calling him “pound for pound probably the greatest player to ever play.”
Maybe James was just being respectful in advance of the Heat’s visit to Philadelphia on Wednesday night, where Iverson’s retirement is scheduled to be ceremonially upgraded to official from obvious. Or he merely meant to say that Iverson got more out of a skinny little body than anyone he could recall.
Players often have a different take on the game than critics. First and foremost, they respect pure talent. That is why Wade said of Iverson: “One of my favorite players of all time. I took pride in wearing No. 3 because A. I. wore it. He changed the game, in a sense.”
But the game moves on, its spotlight on the ascendant. Iverson may have gotten the most out of his body, but never did grasp the meaning of figurative growth, via practice. This is where Rose has a chance to become a champion’s little big man, according to Thibodeau.
“Even though he couldn’t play last year, he studied,” Thibodeau said. “He made the best of his circumstances. He’s a stronger player, a smarter player. And now the challenge is for us to put it together as a team.”
It’s an intriguing team, with tough, versatile players like Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler. But with a history of injuries to key players, can the Bulls play Thibodeau’s relentless style for 82 games and win 16 more against the league’s best teams? Can Thibodeau deepen his bench and make use out of a soft player like Mike Dunleavy?
Against the Heat and in an upgraded Eastern Conference, we know the Bulls will be gritty, but are they really good enough to help Rose become that rare exception in a sport where bigger men rule?
On championship-ring night, the Heat gave us several reasons to doubt it. But in the interests of variety, that would, as they say, be good for the league.