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Power in the NBA has shifted East. The Heat and Bulls are ready to stake their claim

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CHICAGO — Jimmy Butler gingerly walked through the back hallways of the United Center, courtesy of a hard fall he took tumbling over Alex Caruso and meeting an unforgiving floor.

Shortly thereafter, Zach LaVine was showing Butler and Kyle Lowry the area where his left thumb was sprained weeks ago but has played through since.

Call it the scars of war in the Eastern Conference, usually made for April and May but apparently getting an early start in … November?

It’s too strong to say the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls are the two best teams in the revamped East, but the supposed road going through Brooklyn or even Milwaukee could have some unexpected detours, especially if some roster tinkering goes down as trade season should open up in December.

On a night when Kevin Durant played every minute of the second half and then some in yet another underwhelming Nets loss to a top team — this time, the streaking Phoenix Suns came to Barclays Center and spanked them — there was a knockdown showdown in Chicago.

The more experienced Heat squeezed out a close one, 107-104, that wasn’t as pretty as one would’ve expected considering the star power coming into the night.

Butler, having another stellar season to start, coming back to Chicago.

LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, perhaps the NBA’s most potent fourth-quarter duo.

And Lowry, one of the craftiest point guards still making life miserable for you and your coaching staff.

The Bulls haven’t sniffed the playoffs since Butler carried a carcass of a team there in 2017 — three teams ago, if you’re counting — and all have come away from the Butler experience missing that extra something he brings that can’t quite be measured.

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler is defended by Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vucevic.
Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler is defended by Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vucevic during the second half of their game at the United Center in Chicago on Nov. 27, 2021. (David Banks/USA TODAY Sports)

So even with the Heat missing the explosive Tyler Herro, they had more than enough to keep a Bulls team on the second night of a back-to-back at arm’s length during those critical moments. LaVine didn't have his usual scoring-in-bunches stretch, and DeRozan played to his average. But Butler played like he knows the rims in Chicago.

He hit some big shots late reminiscent of his ascent so many years ago.

But this Bulls team has learned on the fly and probably won’t be taking too many hard falls like this, this season. There seems to be a knowledge that even late November games will wind up being very valuable in an Eastern Conference that won’t have much wiggle room in a few months.

“It's not like the East in the early days,” DeRozan told Yahoo Sports, referencing his start with the Toronto Raptors. “The competition level is definitely up there and it’s fun. You don’t know what can happen. Us being one of the top teams in our conference, having a game like tonight, shows you how you gotta approach every single night.”

With apologies to the Golden State Warriors and aforementioned Suns, the torchbearers out West, the quality is on the other side and looks to be sustainable. It feels like a big enough sample size to say it without hesitation, especially as the Lakers continue to sputter and trip over their own feet.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan intimated the game was a measuring stick of sorts, and before you laugh, consider this: 11 teams in the East are at the .500 mark or better and 12 teams have a positive point differential.

It’s never too early for statement games, especially for a young team trying to establish itself in a competitive landscape.

It’s not just getting a top-six spot that’s a goal. Getting homeport advantage isn’t unrealistic for either club, especially with the Philadelphia 76ers still sputtering along as the Ben Simmons saga is unresolved.

The gamesmanship in strategy looked playoff-like, as the smallish Heat played bully ball against the smaller, quicker Bulls. Nikola Vucevic, still shaking off the effects of being in health and safety protocols, was often guarded by Miami bulldog P.J. Tucker — a man some 6 inches shorter — and didn’t attack him.

The Heat scrambled their defenses and almost dared Vucevic to beat them, and it didn’t happen. Didn’t look close to happening, as he took only nine shots in 30 minutes.

“I think this is a really, really good game for myself to look at,” Donovan said when asked about wanting Vucevic to be more aggressive. “And we've got to find ways to help him a little bit more in those situations. I didn't think that in some of those situations that we used him the way we need to use him.”

Donovan will always back his guys, even if it’s obvious Vucevic has to find his way in the new hierarchy of DeRozan and LaVine being the aggressors and not expect the game to deliberately come to him.

But that’s often the challenge for teams in the Bulls’ position, and you’d rather credit them for ambition than chastise the new regime for not being conservative enough — especially against a seasoned Heat squad.

Miami can speed you up when you’re trying to be deliberate, and slow you down when you want to press the pace. It’s part of the franchise makeup, no matter who’s wearing what jersey. And it looks like a team clearly ready to take full advantage of whatever indecision is in the conference or on the floor.

It’s hard to say the Bulls were caught off guard, but it’s an adjustment. The United Center was primed, and it felt like a playoff game.

Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine moves around Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler.
Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine moves around Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler during their game at the United Center in Chicago on Nov. 27, 2021. (David Banks/USA TODAY Sports)

“As far as like the aggressiveness, the intensity, I know a lot of guys on our team that have playoff experience. From our side is not too many,” DeRozan told Yahoo Sports. “But when it comes to the physicality and the aggression, the grinding it out, gritty game. That’s definitely what it's like. The Heat [are] one of the best teams in our conference, for us to compete and be a good team, that’s what it’ll take every night.”

It might take some roster upgrades on both ends. Donovan likes to play smaller and faster, but it feels like the Bulls need another big to rumble with the more physical teams, especially on nights where LaVine and DeRozan find it tough to create space consistently.

Miami also looks like it could use another big, if for no other reason to keep the pressure off Bam Adebayo to handle everything inside and to prepare for what could be coming in the playoffs should the champion Bucks come that way again.

It’ll be fun to see the East rise again, and the jockeying that goes along it — scars, bumps and bruises.

Just like the old days, eh?

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