Nothing has come easy lately for the Miami Heat, and matchups with the Chicago Bulls have been very tough regardless of whether Derrick Rose plays.
This one could be particularly difficult if LeBron James isn't at full strength.
A matchup of the last two league MVPs won't happen because Rose remains sidelined, and there's a chance James won't take the court as the Heat and Bulls renew their rivalry Friday night in Miami.
Chicago edged the Heat for the best record in the Eastern Conference last season, but Rose's torn ACL in the playoffs led to the Bulls' first-round departure while James went on to capture his first NBA title.
Now both stars could miss the teams' first meeting of the season, with multiple reports indicating James sat out Thursday's practice with a bruised right knee but hopes to play Friday.
While James has played in every game this season, the Heat are 2-5 without him since the reigning MVP joined the team in 2010-11. Two of those losses came against the Bulls, who have won five of the last seven regular-season meetings. Five of those games were decided by four points or less and another went to overtime.
Despite Rose missing two games due to injuries and finishing with two points on 1-of-13 shooting in another, the Bulls earned a split of the four games against Miami last season.
Chicago (17-13) might be catching the Heat at the right time Friday. Miami (22-8) has struggled a bit since winning six straight games by an average of 15.2 points from Dec. 15-26.
The Heat lost at Detroit and Milwaukee on consecutive nights by a combined 29 points before needing overtime to beat sub-.500 teams Orlando and Dallas this week.
After escaping Orlando with a 112-110 victory Monday, Miami came from six points down in the final 3:02 of regulation to force overtime against Dallas on Wednesday en route to a 119-109 win. James averaged 34.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 10.0 assists in those two games.
The Heat narrowly improved to a conference-best 15-2 at home Wednesday.
"We're not that dominant where we can come in and blow every team out," said Dwyane Wade, who had 27 points and 10 rebounds.
While James averaged 31.8 points versus the Bulls last season, Wade has had a tough time lately when they come to Miami. Since scoring 48 points against Chicago on March 9, 2009, Wade has averaged 18.7 while shooting 37.8 percent from the field - 1 of 9 from 3-point range - in seven home games in the series including playoffs.
The Heat, the East's highest-scoring team at 103.6 per game, are 19-1 with 10 straight victories when scoring more than 100. They're 3-7 when scoring 100 or less.
That could be a key against a Chicago team that has allowed an average of 87.3 points in three games since giving up a season-high 120 in a loss to Houston on Christmas Day.
The Bulls had lost three of four entering their two-game trip to Florida, which began with a 96-94 victory over short-handed Orlando on Wednesday night.
"It was better, but it's not what it needs to be," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "We had good offensive energy, and not the necessary defensive energy."
Carlos Boozer has played better lately, finishing with a season-high 31 points and 11 rebounds against the Magic. While Boozer has averaged 21.7 points and 12.3 boards in his last three games, he's scored more than 10 only once in his last five versus the Heat.
The Bulls are expected to have center Joakim Noah back in the lineup after missing Wednesday's contest because of flu-like symptoms.
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