MIAMI — As Heat guard Dwyane Wade revved up an American Airlines Arena crowd still amped from the pre-game ring ceremony Tuesday night, Bulls guard Derrick Rose momentarily looked around to soak it all in before stepping onto the court.
The expression on Rose's face suggested it doesn't get any better than this — and, in a lopsided game the Bulls lost 107-95, he would be right. It didn't.
But for one magical moment before things went south in South Beach for the Bulls, the people who weren't cheering the Heat were jeering at the men in red uniforms. Nothing Rose and his teammates love more than being hated. Nothing shows more respect than being disrespected and Heat fans did everything but flip off Bulls players.
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This was the incomparable passion Rose had waited 550 days to experience again, to bathe in the anticipation of an NBA game that mattered. This was what compelled Rose to bring his young son, P.J., along to stay up past the boy's bedtime, so one day he could say he was there when Daddy returned against the Heat.
No matter how badly Rose's left knee felt during a long, grueling rehabilitation from a torn ACL, this was what he ached for since April 28, 2012. No matter how much fun an undefeated preseason was for Rose, none of those games meant as much as playing for real against LeBron James and the Bulls' biggest rival.
The occasion carried enough significance to capture the attention of most powerful basketball fan in the world. (No, not Michael Jordan.) Just before tipoff, President Barack Obama tweeted, "Welcome back @DRose. #BullsNation.'' Bet Adidas wishes someone had thought of that.
The stage was set for a night to remember. By the time the Bulls stepped off it after getting blown out, they would have been wise to forget the whole thing.
"We didn't show what we're capable of,'' Rose said. "It's something we can learn from.''
We learned that every Bull but Carlos Boozer, who scored a game-high 31, played like it had been 18 months since his last NBA game. The Bulls fought back with familiar tenacity to cut a 25-point lead to eight but never really convinced anybody they were going to win.
Coach Tom Thibodeau still might consider this the worst loss of the season in January. When the Heat scored 37 points in the second quarter, Bulls basketball was ugly enough to make local plastic surgeons look away.
Nobody needed a calendar to know it was still Oct. 29. Taj Gibson doesn't miss dunks like he did over Chris Andersen in March; he turns them into posters. Rose doesn't get outplayed by Norris Cole in April; he dominates.
"I don't think it was rust,'' Rose said. "It was just me missing shots.''
Despite the enormous hype, Rose was the first to remind Chicago that this counted as just one of 82 regular-season games. The easy victory made no profound statement for the Heat and the Bulls suffered no psychological scars time cannot heal.
"It's not the end of the world,'' Rose said, smiling.
It likely will be seven months before the Bulls and Heat play against each other again in a game that commands so much attention. In one way, the game did mirror the NBA playoffs: The Bulls were overmatched by the Heat just as in previous postseasons. The Heat gave out gaudy rings and raised a championship banner yet the Bulls were the team that responded early as if their minds were lost in last summer.
As if to remind the national television audience just how badly the Bulls need Rose, they were outscored 14-3 over the first nine-minute stretch he rested. In their most dominant run, the Heat scored 17 straight.
To hear the Bulls, they did it by getting away with what Thibodeau called "grabbing and holding,'' and benefiting from generous calls. Deng picked up his third foul in the first quarter and held the refs as much as the Heat responsible for disturbing his rhythm.
"Honestly, I don't think we got the best whistle and thought two of my fouls were not fouls at all,'' Deng said. "The refs even said that when I asked them. They're humans but tonight they missed some calls.''
Perhaps, but the Bulls played defense as if they had been influenced by the Bears. Meanwhile, the Heat applied familiar pressure, double-teaming Rose to let him know they remembered what works. Rose attacked the rim but struggled with the shooting stroke that looked so smooth in preseason, hitting just 4 of 15 shots for 12 points. He had more turnovers than assists. Still, Thibodeau called Rose's effort "a positive.''
"This will reveal where we are,'' Thibodeau predicted before the game.
He better be wrong.