The Miami Heat begin defense of their back-to-back NBA titles Tuesday night by facing the team most believe is going to present the biggest challenge for them in the Eastern Conference.
The Chicago Bulls visit Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena on the shores of Biscayne Bay.
With guard Derrick Rose returning after missing last season because of a knee injury, the Bulls are back at full strength for the 2013-14 campaign, though they may not be for the opener.
Forward Joakim Noah and guard Kirk Hinrich both have been limited by injuries in the preseason. Noah played in only one preseason game, and though he is cleared to play, he may not be in the best of condition. Hinrich played in five games.
Of course, with 81 more games to play after the opener, nothing much is going to be decided in just one, no matter how interesting a matchup it might be.
The Heat, who stepped up their defense in the exhibition season, are essentially the same team that beat San Antonio in seven games last June to win their second consecutive championship.
The Big Three of LeBron James, a healthy Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh were crisp at both ends of the court and combined for 48 points a game despite playing under 30 minutes apiece.
The most significant missing piece from the last two teams, is Michael Miller, whose 3-point shooting was a key factor in the last two playoff runs. He was released in the offseason for salary cap considerations.
Key new faces are forward Michael Beasley and center Greg Oden.
Coming off a history of injuries, Oden is considered a longer term project who the team hopes will be ready for next spring’s playoff run.
One encouraging sign: He made one appearance in the preseason, playing four minutes in the next-to-last exhibition game. He bad two points and two rebounds in that time.
Beasley had to earn his way onto the roster and did so by averaging just over nine points and just under four rebounds a game in five appearances.
A third newcomer who could be a factor is veteran guard Roger Mason Jr. A 3-point specialist, he was 8-of-18 from behind the arc in making six appearances. Coincidentally, he was a second-round draft choice for the Bulls back in 2002.
But when the Heat take the floor for the opening tip, their lineup will definitely have a familiar look.
In addition to the trio of James, Wade, and Bosh, forward Shane Battier and guard Mario Chalmers are expected to start.
Familiar faces off the bench will include forward Udonis Haslem, guard Ray Allen, forward-center Chris Andersen and guard Norris Cole.
Two themes are likely to add to the drama of the season for the Heat.
— First, can they three-peat? Opinion seems to be divided on whether they can make it back to the NBA Finals for a fourth consecutive season and capture a third straight title.
— Second, what will happen next summer when James, Bosh, and Wade all become free agents? It’s all going to be speculation, because they aren’t going to talk about it, preferring instead to focus on getting that third title.