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Learning Experience

Saying 'it's almost better this way' that the Bulls are playing the Heat rings hollow, I admit. It would've been nicer to get the 'easy' route to the Eastern Conference finals. If the Bulls need to prove themselves, they could've proved themselves then.

But proving themselves now isn't the worst thing in the world, and in terms of a first-round matchup, a meeting with the Heat will tell us more about the team than one against the Wizards or Magic.

Over the course of the season I've tried to throw cold water on any special significance that a regular season game brought. There were 82 of them, guys were in and out for both teams at the time, and as we know not every team is geared up for every game. So while it's impressive that the Bulls have won season series against the Pistons and Heat, and tied against the Mavs and Suns, it doesn't mean that the Bulls belong with those teams. What will determine that is the upcoming 7-game series, where there's no lies and no upsets. The better team will win. Are the Bulls better than the Heat?

I really think this series could tell us a lot about the Bulls: Hinrich, Deng and Gordon in particular. As much as I worry about Skiles burying Tyrus on the bench (and a series-long exile of Tyrus will be enough to have me worry about Skiles himself), if the 'core' doesn't play well it likely won't matter anyway. That means Hinrich being a consistently efficient point guard, exploiting the Heat's weak perimeter defense and initiating their drive-and-kick attack,  Luol Deng doing more than hitting open jumpers, slashing to the basket both with and without the ball against a team with no real answer for him,  Ben Gordon show the league that he's not merely a diminutive streaky jump-shooter, a rich man's Juan Dixon or Willie Green, and become the upper-echelon all-around scorer that the Bulls need. Even better, can any of the three get to the line in merely a fraction of the frequency that Dwyane Wade can?

The best part about bringing in a veteran frontcourt in the offseason is that there's no longer that additional variable concerning how the bigs will play. Wallace and Brown should do fine. It'll be the 'core' that will elevate the Bulls to the 2nd round, if they play well.

If they don't, it brings up so many questions: Is it the type of team that tries hard enough during the regular season to rack up wins but truly aren't that good? Is their point differential inflated by blowouts over inferior opponents? Are they rightfully more annoyed-by instead of feared-by in the East, a team that can be put away whenever necessary?

I wouldn't have said this a year ago, but after a year of perceived progress plus the addition of Wallace, I think these are valid questions if they lose to a banged-up, older, slower Heat team. Judging by their respective seasons, the Bulls are the better team. But in playoff games it always comes down to talent, and the Bulls need to show that they're not just some gritty band of overachievers, there's some true star power amongst them. This season made me want to believe it, but I can't be convinced if they can't make a good showing of this series.