By CHRIS ALTRUDA
(AP) -- Coming off their worst defensive effort since LeBron James and Chris Bosh brought their talents to South Beach to join forces with Dwyane Wade, the Miami Heat need a victory for any realistic chance to claim the Eastern Conference's top seed.
The Chicago Bulls have done quite well maintaining that position despite Derrick Rose being slowed by injuries as role players have consistently stepped up in his absence.
The Heat's talented trio comes to the United Center for a showdown Thursday night versus the Bulls, who are uncertain if the league's reigning MVP will be unavailable for the 14th time in 15 games.
Miami (40-16) is three games behind Chicago (44-14) with two games in hand and should finish no worse than second in the East. While the teams play again April 19 in Miami, the Bulls know they can significantly improve their chances of being the No. 1 seed with a win.
"It's a big game because of the team they have, the record they have and we're trying to fight for the top seed in the East, so it's a big game to determine who gets that top seed in the East," guard C.J. Watson said.
Additionally, the Heat have fallen off the pace recently and split their last 10 games. They also were shockingly exposed defensively in a 115-107 home loss Tuesday night to Boston.
The Celtics shot 60.6 percent, the best any opponent has put forth against the Big 3. More disturbing for Miami is three of the nine worst shooting percentages allowed in the 138 games since James and Bosh were acquired have come in these past 10 games.
"None of us were expecting that," coach Erik Spoelstra said. "To give up 115 points on our home floor, that's not our style. And we're being made to feel uncomfortable right now. That's really the residual of the last three weeks or so."
In the last 10 games, the Heat have yielded an average of 95.8 points on 47.3 percent shooting, the latter notably higher than their season mark of 43.2 percent.
The lack of defense was the primary reason Chicago defeated Miami 106-102 on March 14 as Rose watched due to a groin injury. John Lucas scored 24 points off the bench as six players scored in double figures for the Bulls, who made 10 of 19 from 3-point range.
Rose currently has a sprained right ankle suffered in Sunday's 100-99 overtime loss at New York - his only action since March 12. Despite practicing before Tuesday's 98-86 win over the Knicks, coach Tom Thibodeau left out his star guard.
"I just think it was the smart thing to do in this situation," Thibodeau said. "If we're going to err, we're going to err on the side of caution. He wanted to play and we felt it was best that he didn't."
While replacing Rose's 23.0 points per game presents a challenge, the Bulls are 16-7 without him, and Thibodeau has many players capable of doing so any given night. On Tuesday, Richard Hamilton became the fifth Bull in the 14-game span Rose has battled injuries to reach the 20-point mark, scoring 18 in the third quarter.
"That's what I've been doing my whole career," said Hamilton, who has been limited to 20 games due to injuries. "But on this team, I've got to pick my moments. There are so many guys on this team that can score."
Wade, a Chicago native, scored 36 in last month's loss while James added 35. Wade has three consecutive 30-point games in the regular season at the United Center, but the Bulls have won all three.
Updated April 11, 2012