The Bulls were the leaders, and the Heat were pursuers.
But after a devastating injury to Chicago's biggest star and some untimely missteps on the free-agent market, the Bulls' greatest chance at building a lasting legacy may come down to their ability to win one regular-season game.
The Bulls will not just welcome the Heat to the United Center on Wednesday night.
You see, Chicago's visitors will be bringing with them a 27-game winning streak. Miami's sustained success has survived longer than all but one team in the NBA's storied history, the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers who rattled off 33 consecutive victories.
For a Bulls team that limps into the matchup, losers of 13 of their last 22 games, this matchup may well present the club's last venture into the NBA's spotlight for the 2012-13 season.
But how did Chicago ever fall to this level? And what did Miami do to transform itself into an unrivaled superpower?
Outside Looking In
In the 2009-10 season, both Miami and Chicago were NBA afterthoughts.
The Bulls had the edge in supporting casts, largely due to the fact that Luol Deng was a far superior sidekick than Michael Beasley. But neither team had enough support pieces in place to maximize the effectiveness of their superstars.
Both clubs made abbreviated postseason appearances. Chicago lasted just five games in their opening-round matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Miami fared no better in its series with the Boston Celtics.
Laying the Groundwork
Whatever the previous seasons had compiled in frustrations, the 2010 offseason brought with it unbridled jubilation for both sides of this rivalry.
Chicago first shook up its sideline, luring in Boston Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau to replace the fired Vinny Del Negro. The Bulls quickly switched their attention to the roster, making the first free-agent splash by signing former Utah Jazz All-Star Carlos Boozer to a five-year, $80 million deal.
Miami's free-agent answer was as swift as it was powerful. The Heat locked up their own restricted free agent Dwyane Wade, then quickly added Chris Bosh to the mix.
The prized piece of the 2010 free-agent class—perhaps the greatest free-agent prize in the history of professional sports—LeBron James kept his intentions to himself before delivering them to the nation in a one-hour special on ESPN dubbed simply The Decision.
Both teams bolstered their supporting ranks behind their star players.
Chicago added Kyle Korver, Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer, Brian Scalabrine, Kurt Thomas and Keith Bogans on the free-agent market and traded for C.J. Watson. Miami landed Mike Miller, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Eddie House on free-agent deals and traded away Beasley in a cost-cutting move.
If there were any doubts about the effectiveness of their offseason heists, Chicago and Miami quickly brushed those aside.
Boozer (17.5 points per game) and Deng (17.4) formed a productive complementary duo. Fourth-year big man Joakim Noah continued his steady improvement (11.7 points, 10.4 rebounds).
But Rose's ascension to MVP heights (25.0 points, 7.7 assists) established the Bulls as the class of the East. They rolled through the regular season en route to a conference-best 62-20.
But with every step forward Chicago took, Miami was right on its tail.
The superstar trio of James (26.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists), Wade (25.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists) and Bosh (18.7 points, 8.3 rebounds) powered the Heat to the second-best record in the East (58-24).
When the two teams squared off in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, the matchup promised to be a bruising heavyweight clash. Chicago had swept the teams' three-game series in the regular season, but all three meetings were decided by a total of eight points.
Miami Draws First Blood
Chicago struck first in Game 1 of that series. Playing in front of a raucous United Center crowd, the Bulls used a 55-34 second-half advantage to cruise to a 103-82 victory.
But Chicago's second-half magic was nowhere to be seen in Game 2. The Bulls managed just 29 points in the final two quarters as the Heat stunned the Windy City with an 85-75 win.
When the series shifted to South Beach, Miami snatched the series lead with a 96-85 win in Game 3. Game 4 saw the Heat rally late to force overtime then double up the Bulls, 16-8, in the extra session to claim a 101-93 win.
The Bulls carried a 3-1 series deficit back to Chicago. They opened Game 5 with a seven-point advantage over the first three quarters, but Miami rallied for a series-clinching 83-80 win.
The Heat went on to face the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals. Miami raced out to a 2-1 series lead, but couldn't match the dominant performances of Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry as the Mavericks won each of the next three games to claim the title.
Chicago's plans A, B and C for the 2011 offseason were locking up Rose on a long-term deal. And they did just that by signing the reigning MVP to a five-year contract worth nearly $95 million in the final days leading up to the season.
With so much money tied up in their superstar players, both teams turned their attention to the free-agent bargain bin.
Chicago snatched up Richard Hamilton on a two-year, $10 million deal with a team option for a third season. Hamilton had been waived by the Detroit Pistons following an unceremonious departure from a franchise he helped to win a title in 2004 (via ESPN). The Bulls released Keith Bogans and lost Kurt Thomas on the free-agent market, but added Jimmy Butler with the 30th pick of the 2011 draft.
Miami's offseason essentially consisted of one move. But it was the type of valuable deal championships are built around. The Heat brought in veteran sharpshooter and defensive stopper Shane Battier on a budget three-year, $9 million deal.
Another year of seasoning for their talent-rich rosters only strengthened the club's hold on the Eastern Conference in the 2011-12 season.
Chicago, once again, reclaimed the conference's top spot with a 50-16 record in the strike-shortened season, despite Rose missing a large chunk of the regular season with injuries. Rose and Deng became Chicago's first All-Star teammates since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen paired up in the 1997 All-Star Game.
But once again, Miami was right there nipping at Chicago's heels. The Heat finished with the second-best record in the conference at 46-20. James brought the MVP to Miami, winning the award for the third time in four seasons.
The conference powers split their four-game season series, with each side holding home court.
Destinies Tearing Apart
Despite some dominant teams looming out West, the potential playoff matchup that whetted every basketball fan's appetite was a presumably inevitable Eastern Conference Finals rematch.
Unfortunately, that series never came to fruition.
The Bulls were less than 90 seconds removed from a double-digit win over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 1 of their first-round matchup. Rose raced through the lane and exploded into a sweeping jump stop. A second later, he was down on the floor, clutching at his left knee and grimacing in pain.
A postgame MRI confirmed what Chicago fans feared most: Rose had torn his ACL and would be sidelined indefinitely. The Bulls would go on to lose four of the next five games, giving an abrupt end to their season.
As for the Heat, they steamrolled through their first-round series, disposing of the New York Knicks in just five games. They needed six games to handle the Indiana Pacers in the next round and all seven to eliminate the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, but still managed their second NBA Finals appearance in as many seasons.
With the bad taste lingering from their last finals venture, the Heat looked determined to not meet a similar fate. They dropped the first game to the Oklahoma City Thunder, then won each of the next four to give the franchise its second NBA title.
Heading In Opposite Directions
The Bulls opened the 2012-13 season anxiously awaiting Rose's return. Nearly six months later, they're still waiting.
That's part of the reason that Chicago has struggled to a 38-31 record (fifth in the East) but not the only one.
The Bulls revamped their second unit in the offseason. And the early returns have not been promising. Kirk Hinrich, Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson were the notable offseason additions, but have not been able to replicate the second-unit success of last season's bench mob that included offseason subtractions John Lucas III, Watson, Brewer and Asik.
Noah has continued his steady improvement (12.1 points, 11.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 blocks). But Deng (16.2 points) has not evolved into the go-to scoring role that the Bulls have needed in Rose's absence. And Boozer (15.7 points) has played his way into potential amnesty territory.
And, for the first time in two seasons, the Heat have not followed the Bulls' regular-season lead.
The defending champs bolstered their supporting staff with sharpshooters Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis during the offseason. They brought in Chris Andersen on a pair of in-season 10-day contracts, then inked the veteran for the rest of the season for his rim protection and aerial finishes.
Miami hasn't just reclaimed its position at the top of the NBA landscape, it's lengthened its lead over the rest of the league.
James (26.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 7.4 assists) has positioned himself for the fourth MVP award of his career. Wade (21.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists) has thrived with a better understanding of his supportive role. And Bosh (16.5 points. 6.8 rebounds) has picked up any slack left behind by his talented teammates.
The Heat's winning streak has been an intriguing side story to this season, but there's no reason to think that Miami won't finish this season the same way they did the last one.
And that means another ring for the "King," a third banner raised inside AmericanAirlines Arena and another championship parade down Biscayne Boulevard.
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