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Oh, Chicago, how the Heat has changed . . .

By Dave Hyde, Sun Sentinel –

Dear Chicago,

You may not recognize the Heat on Sunday from when you last cursed them. They’ve been stripped down, left naked, exposed to the elements and rubbed raw by the basketball fates.

As LeBron James tweeted just a few days ago, “Getting a massage on the back patio with the wind blowing off the ocean and the waves dancing together. Wow I’m really #blessed.”

What, you expected some regular-season penance for their June stumble?

When I said you might not recognize the Heat, I meant they’re your worst nightmare now. They’re better. They’re sounder. They’re deeper with veteran Shane Battier, rookie Norris Cole, a healthy Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller and even a hope Eddy Curry could fill 15 minutes of the unforgiving night by May.

All that, and they’ve toned down the self-indulgent act that offended America, too. No ESPN-televised pre-celebrations anymore. No championship countdown.

Just the other day, Dwyane Wade had a birthday party thrown by his girlfriend, the actor Gabrielle Union, at a South Beach hotel and no one would’ve known a $230,000 McLaren was delivered by crane as a surprise present if TMZ hadn’t gotten a hold of some photos.

Still, isn’t that taking your talents to South Beach?

So Sunday, when the Heat meet the Bulls for the first time since the Eastern Conference Finals, it’ll be the massage before the storm, the McLaren before the … uh, you find a pricier car as a metaphor.

The point is, this is just a regular-season milepost. Beware concluding too much. As we all remember, the headlined winners (Bulls were undefeated against Heat in regular season last year) and the drama (Heat were crying in the locker room after a February loss to Chicago) only mean so much this time of year.

At the risk of sounding like a Valentine’s Day card, there’s a reason 96.3 percent of NBA general managers picked the Heat to come out of the East in a recent poll while 3.7 percent picked Chicago.

The reason: Derrick Rose is one heckuva great player.

Why else would anyone pick Chicago over the Heat given the rosters and portfolios?

We know these two teams will meet in the Eastern finals again, too. Boston is too old. New York is too dysfunctional. Orlando is too Dwight Howard. And no one else, not even Atlanta, will factor too much in the mix.

It’s that predictable in January. And that hum-drum around the Heat compared to a year ago. Remember? A year ago, Erik Spolesta had been fired several times by now in the media, Chris Bosh traded, the LeBron-Wade tandem declared unworkable and the Heat declared a general failure.

The big drama this year is they’re 6-1 without Wade. The faulty conclusion there is some version of the LeBron-and-Wade-don’t-work theory.

The real bottom-line is that the Heat has more working parts this year. Haslem and Miller didn’t step on the court together until Game 94 of last year, in the Chicago series, when they played their small parts.

The Heat has some issues, sure. They’re real, detail-oriented basketball issues. Spoelstra wants them to run more this year. The problem is getting out on the run regularly when you don’t rule the rebounding.

Still, this season will be defined by the playoffs. And, to drop the microscope even further, it will be defined by how LeBron does when a trophy is there for the taking.

Does he disappear like a year ago? Does he find his footing in the way many great do with the tag of “can’t win the big one?” (Barry Bonds, Peyton Manning …)

Sunday won’t decide that. Sunday will offer a pulse-reading of the season, a measure of where two teams are. Or maybe in this crammed season it’ll just tell which players are more rested and, yes, who needs an oceanside massage.

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