CHICAGO (AP) — Just in case the message isn't getting through, the Miami Heat are more than happy to repeat it. The championship still is in their hands and good luck trying to pry it away.
The Heat won their season-high ninth straight Thursday night with an 86-67 win over the Chicago Bulls behind LeBron James' 26 points, and supplied more evidence that they're ready to put away the rest of the Eastern Conference.
More important, they're looking like a team that's poised to defend their championship.
"We all had a vision of how this team was going to really operate together, but there is no limit," Chris Bosh said. "We can continue to get better. We can continue to play better together. Our defense can continue to improve. If we want to win in the postseason, it's going to have to."
They sure are looking good at the moment. They blew out Oklahoma City on the road before the All-Star break and followed it up with a win at Atlanta on Wednesday before taking out the Bulls.
James also had 12 rebounds and seven assists in another big performance after ending his franchise-record seven-game streak of scoring at least 30 the previous night.
Dwyane Wade added 17 points, and the Heat took control in the first half, sending the Bulls to their fifth loss in seven games on a night when the Derrick Rose recovery story took another twist.
After saying last week that he wouldn't rush back from his knee injury to play this season if he wasn't ready, Chicago's sidelined superstar had to go into damage control mode after his older brother Reggie blasted the organization in an ESPNChicago.com article for not making a move before Thursday's trade deadline.
Things didn't get much better for the Bulls once the game started. They set a season low for points while committing a season-high 27 turnovers, the most for the Bulls since they had 29 against Washington on Dec. 4, 2004.
"We're putting together some good basketball right now," James said. "We're defending. We're creating turnovers. We're winning the turnover game offensively. We're the best shooting team in the league ... so if we don't turn the ball over, we get good shots at the rim, we could also have a good chance to win."
Nate Robinson scored 14 points for Chicago but also committed five fouls with Kirk Hinrich sitting out because of ongoing trouble with his right elbow. That explains some of the Bulls' problems hanging onto the ball, although general sloppiness and Miami's athleticism certainly played a role.
Carlos Boozer had 12 points and 11 rebounds and Joakim Noah added 11 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, but he also had four turnovers.
Chicago was particularly bad in the first half, coughing it up 17 times as the Heat built a 45-35 lead, and the Bulls came up short after winning at Miami last month. This time, the Heat took control in the second quarter, scoring 13 straight points during a 4 1/2-minute stretch to turn a two-point deficit into an 11-point advantage even though James was on the bench for much of the run.
It started after a soaring right-handed dunk by Taj Gibson to give Chicago a 28-26 lead with 8:16 remaining. Allen answered with a driving layup, Wade followed with two jumpers and the Bulls turned it over five times as the Heat built a 39-28 lead.
Marco Belinelli ended the scoring drought for Chicago with a free throw, and Boozer then nailed a jumper after Bosh buried a 20-footer. But it was a rough night all around for Chicago, even before the Bulls took to the court.
Rose, recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, found himself at the center of attention after his brother went off, and he wound up releasing this statement in response: "I have always felt that the Bulls organization's goals have been the same as mine and that is to bring another championship to this city."
That comment came after Reggie Rose ripped the Bulls, telling ESPNChicago.com they don't have the talent to compete for a championship and that their decision to stand pat before the trade deadline could be a "big factor" in whether Derrick plays at all this season.
"It's frustrating to see my brother play his heart and soul out for the team and them not put anything around him," said Reggie Rose, Derrick's manager.
Coach Tom Thibodeau brushed off his comments, saying they're "no big deal.
"We all want the same things," he added. "We want Derrick's health. Obviously we're trying to pursue a championship. We share that in common."
NOTES: Hinrich sat out because of soreness in his right elbow. The veteran Hinrich missed seven games with an infection in the elbow before delivering 10 assists Tuesday in a win at New Orleans. The Bulls visit Charlotte on Friday, and Thibodeau expects him to make the trip. ... The Heat traded backup center Dexter Pittman and a second-round pick in this year's draft to the Grizzlies on Thursday for the rights to center Ricky Sanchez. ... Mike Miller remained in Miami because of ear problems resulting from a head cold. He also missed Wednesday's game at Atlanta but could be available in Saturday at Philadelphia.