As Heat grab headlines, Bulls get better

Twenty-five seconds left. Tie game. Timeout. The strategy for the Chicago Bulls? Simple. Derrick Rose instructs his his teammates: Get me the ball.

They do, and he wins the game Tuesday night over New Orleans.

“I always think about my legacy, taking those shots,’’ Rose said. “I want to be where I want to be at the end of my career.’’

You can’t read too much into one regular-season game, just as you can’t tell everything about a player who passes up chances late in an All-Star Game, the way LeBron James did. But there is something defining here about both. One guy wants his legacy to be like Michael Jordan’s, demanding the ball and winning the game. And LeBron? Well, in Chicago Bulls terms, he is actually more like Scottie Pippen, with Pippen’s second-fiddle mentality, than he is like Michael Jordan.

James is already defined. Rose is not. But Rose, who couldn’t finish off the Heat in the conference finals last year, has taken major steps to make sure that never happens again. Those steps were so relentless that he might have actually beaten himself down and caused his own injuries this year. He is still improving, single-mindedly.

The point is, he’s not even the same guy he was last year. And he also is the perfect symbol of the Bulls. With all the focus on the Heat and on Linsanity, somehow the Bulls are going undetected. Yes, the Bulls, in a virtual tie for the best record in the NBA, with the reigning MVP in a major media market, have managed to be overshadowed. People think they showed last year what they are: a team that is not as good as the Heat.

So here’s a little message from this quiet little village: The Bulls are way better than they were last year.

Way better. No, they still aren’t as good as the Heat, who also are better. But they might be there in time for the playoffs.

“With what we have this year, I don’t feel like we’ve peaked,’’ said Joakim Noah, who followed his triple-double before the All-Star break with 15 points and 16 rebounds Tuesday. “We have to take it up another notch to win a championship.’’

Luol Deng is having his best year. He always had talent, but never had shown this type of consistency. Noah is better, passing incredibly well and making some jump shots. The team now plays with the knowledge and experience of having made a run through the playoffs. It now has a year of familiarity with coach Tom Thibodeau. Like no other team, it is two-deep at every spot. And the Bulls saw, close up, what they were missing to keep up with the Heat.

“Like Coach Thibodeau tells us,’’ Bulls forward Taj Gibson said, “we have to go through them, not around them.’’

And Rose? He has extended the range on his jumper at least two feet.

After the conference finals last year, when the Heat trapped Rose, who was exhausted, he blamed himself for the loss. He decided it was his own lack of physical toughness. So Rose put himself through grueling off-season workouts, driving the lane and having trainers holding football blocking pads, knocking him around. He has suffered from injuries this year, including back pain, more so than ever before. At 23, he is now seeing a chiropractor.

What the Bulls missed most last year was someone else who could score while the Heat were ganging up on Rose. That’s why they signed Rip Hamilton, who has been out with a groin injury most of the season.

Hamilton started again Tuesday, and guess how many games the Bulls now have had their full starting lineup:

Six.

Hamilton is a big key, and his health a big unknown. Beating New Orleans 99-95 is not exactly a result to celebrate. But Hamilton, starting to work his way back in, played only 17 minutes. In that time, the Bulls outscored the Hornets by 12.

Rose already has his MVP award, a $95 million contract and a new deal to be Adidas’ centerpiece, reportedly worth about $200 million. But at this point, all of those things are still on spec. He’s still finding out how to be a champion. He still missed two late free throws at Miami this year. He talked about his legacy then, too. But also, there is a balance he has not yet mastered. Michael Jordan didn’t become a champion until he learned how to trust his teammates, at least a little.

Rose is not selfish, but he still hasn’t found that trust. And rightfully so, as his teammates haven’t proven yet that they deserve it. Hamilton can change that if he stays healthy.

But the trust will come partly from the growth of Rose, and partly from the growth of the rest of the team. Some people think that survival is the goal of this regular season, as the schedule is too cram-packed following the time lost during the labor fight. The Bulls, who have had injury after injury, don’t see it that way. To them, this is a rush job on a learning curve to catch the Heat.

“It’s a lot more than just surviving,’’ Thibodeau said. “It comes down to the teams that are playing the best and are healthiest in the playoffs. (But) I don’t think you ever want to approach it where you’re just trying to get through something.’’

Rose said that the Bulls are better this year because they are finding ways to win close games. That’s true, he said, because the system isn’t new to them anymore.

It is against the sensibilities of this city to allow itself to be overlooked. Chicago was not called the Windy City because of its weather, as most people think, but instead because of its image of a town always pumping itself up. A town of blowhards.

Rose scored 32 points Tuesday, driving for a short, high-arcing jumper in the final seconds. So keep watching the fun of LeBron and Linsanity. Rose is quietly demanding that he and the Bulls are after something bigger.