CHICAGO -- The firsts have come and gone throughout the preseason for Derrick Rose, who has conquered them with similar ferocity to how he attacks the rim.
Tuesday's high-profile opener will bring more. And the biggest one goes beyond Rose's first regular-season game since April 26, 2012, an event so significant that LeBron James said he personally will welcome Rose back.
The most critical post-surgery first will come in those taut moments when James switches to defend Rose. This is not for any health-related concerns. It's more symbolic, dating to when James smothered Rose during the 2011 Eastern Conference finals.
The Heat have stormed to three straight NBA Finals appearances and two championships since. Rose and the Bulls? Well, at least there are fewer questions about Rose's surgically-repaired knee as far as parting gifts go.
"When you have a player like that and he's a (small forward) and he actually is switching off to stick me, we've just got to find ways to get guys open, take advantage of whoever they put on Luol (Deng) and play real smart basketball," Rose said. "Because they would want me to force every shot up."
To a man, the Bulls keep talking about the potential for something special this season. With Kirk Hinrich and Joakim Noah expected to play Tuesday barring unexpected setbacks from their lingering injuries, the Bulls should be at full strength. This includes Jimmy Butler's ascension to starting shooting guard, the steadiness of Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer and, of course, Rose's return.
Titles aren't won in season openers. But with a championship-or-bust feel to this season and this core, the process begins in a hothouse environment that occasionally will feature the man who has won four of the last five most valuable player awards checking the man who interrupted his reign.
"It's not about Derrick and LeBron," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau predictably said. "It's about the Heat and the Bulls. It's a team game. We expect him to do the right things and run the team."
Thibodeau has talked consistently throughout training camp about Rose's maturation as a leader and improved ability to read defenses. When James checks Rose, these qualities will be tested.
"For sure," Rose said, when asked if this is the best Bulls team he has been on. "No disrespect to any of my old teammates, but it seems like we're way more focused this year."
Thibodeau said Noah may be restricted depending on his conditioning. There will be no such restrictions on Rose, who blew through his preseason tests with aggressiveness and aplomb.
"Of course they learned how to win games without me (last season), but I think we're a totally different team where all the guys are focused in and everyone knows their role," Rose said. "Even the rookies, they're acting like professionals when they come in. So we have a great chance to contend for a title."
Thibodeau can downplay the rivalry all he wants and drift into coach-speak about Tuesday marking one of 82 games. But speaking to reporters in Miami after Monday's practice, James summarized the rivalry rightly.
"We don't like them, they don't like us," James said. "We all know how it is."
Rose created headlines this offseason when he called himself the league's best player, a mindset that all true stars share. On Monday, after calling James "one of the best," Rose fielded a follow-up question on whether James actually is the best.
"He won a championship, he's got two under him," Rose said. "So for sure, he's the best."
He and the Heat will remain so until the Bulls or somebody else dethrones King James.
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