CHICAGO – Shorthanded from their first practice of training camp through the 104-94 Game 3 loss to the Miami Heat Friday night at United Center in their Eastern Conference semifinals series, the Chicago Bulls have remained stoic throughout — sphinx-like, even.
At no point during a season defined as much by who hasn’t played as who has – no Derrick Rose at all, no Luol Deng or Kirk Hinrich for about half of this playoff run now – have they whined. No grousing, no feeling sorry for themselves, no covetous glances or comments about the relative health of their opponents.
The Bulls have fallen in line behind their coach, Tom Thibodeau, who replays the same half dozen or so responses to any questions he fields about the team’s shortage of healthy players. More than enough to win. Do your job. Next man up. More than answers, they’re mantras and affirmations, repeated so often now that the fellows in Chicago’s dressing room truly believe.
Only it’s gone on too long now. The manpower disadvantage Chicago drags onto the court each game in this series against the NBA’s defending champions is starting to seize up on them. It’s frustrating, facing mighty Miami outnumbered and undermanned, and it’s starting to poke through not as woe-are-we grumbles about their injury plight but in a creeping sense of persecution.
Maybe it’s not merely the unfairness of relying on the same seven or eight players night after night, the Bulls more than hinted after Friday’s defeat, while the Heat can draw a rotation from 10 or 12. Maybe it’s the impossibility of winning basketball games five-on-eight, when three on the other side have whistles.
Yes, for the last few days, Thibodeau and the Bulls have gone there.
“We’re well aware of what’s going on,” the coach said after a game in which his backup center Nazr Mohammed got ejected for pushing Miami’s LeBron James in the second quarter and his starter Joakim Noah got called on what might have been an offensive rebound in the final minutes.
The former, a stunning moment that saw the NBA’s Most Valuable Player toppling backwards (and looking for the best place to land as he fell), cost Chicago Mohammed’s services, which typically provide 10 or 15 minutes rest for Noah. The latter, with the Bulls down 88-83 with 3:15 to play, might have triggered a four- or five-point swing when Noah’s foul coughed up the ball and the Heat’s Chris Bosh sank two free throws.
“When you play this team, you have to have a lot of mental, physical and emotional toughness,” Thibodeau said. “And things aren’t going to go your way. We’re not going to get calls. That’s reality. We’ve still got to find a way to get it done. And we can.”
That might read like typical Thibs-ese, but there are insinuations in it of a double standard at work. Thibodeau has dropped in comments about the Bulls “not getting calls” each day since their 115-78 meltdown in Game 2 Wednesday, when Chicago players were slapped with six technical fouls and both Noah and Taj Gibson were ejected.
Fact is, the sense that Miami might try to muscle up in this series dates back to Chicago’s streak-busting victory on March 27. After that game, in which the Heat’s run of consecutive victories ended at 27, James complained publicly about the Bulls being overly aggressive – particularly two “not basketball plays” in which Hinrich tackled him and Gibson knocked him down awkwardly in the lane. James acted out his frustration that night, slamming into Bulls forward Carlos Boozer to earn his own flagrant foul.
But the tone was set.
Game 1 flew below the radar, Miami searching for its game and its edge beneath some layoff rust and a lack of urgency dating back weeks. But Game 2 got snarly – in the tradition of Dwyane Wade pushing Rip Hamilton into the seats last season – and Game 3 wanted to go that way, too, if not for referee Joey Crawford, and his notoriously short fuse, working as the night’s top cop.
Still, it didn’t stop Mohammed. After the backup center fouled James to prevent a fast break, the Miami star pushed back – harder – sending the bigger man to the floor. Mohammed got up and, without even realizing James had just earned a technical foul for that move, shoved back. James went reeling, lost his balance or folded in a little theatrics exaggerating the impact enough that Mohammed was a sure goner from the game. Easy ejection.
The Bulls, however, didn’t see it that way.
“From my angle, I just saw a guy basically flop,” Thibodeau said. “And … I’m gonna leave it at that.”
Only he didn’t. Asked specifically about the refs’ decision to eject Mohammed, the Bulls coach said: “I didn’t think it warranted an ejection. I understand a flagrant foul. I understand that. But an ejection? No. No. Nope.”
Mohammed said he never imagined he would get tossed, given James’ shove triggered his reaction. And that’s where the context of what had happened – the way the series has gone, the way most of the games between Chicago and Miami have gone the past three seasons – bubbled to the surface.
“I look at some plays that have happened through the series already,” Mohammed said. “Guys jumping on [Nate Robinson's] face. [A] Guy tackling Marco Belinelli out of bounds. Guy takes out Nate first play of the game. I mean, there have been a lot of plays that didn’t [get] ejections.
“I’m disappointed in myself. I let my teammates down, I could have been out there to help. I’m disappointed in myself also because my son was probably watching the game. I don’t want him to see that type of behavior on the court. But I’m also disappointed it warranted an ejection for something like a push when I got pushed down first.”
There also was a heated moment late in the first quarter when Miami’s Chris “Birdman” Anderson fell atop Robinson along the baseline and wasn’t getting off him fast enough to suit Noah. The Heat do seem to aim their falls so they land on opposing players, so Noah rushed over and shoved Andersen, as he was untangling from the Bulls guard. It was a sneak preview of the Mohammed-James altercation.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra brushed aside questions about the dust-ups, calling them “inconsequential” to the outcome. And, mostly, Spoelstra was right. Chicago could not get stops when it needed them down the stretch and the Heat got a big game from Bosh, unexpected help from backup guard Norris Cole and timely scoring late from James.
But the Mohammed and Noah incidents did matter to Chicago, same as nudge foul by Jimmy Butler on James for a three-point play that made it 99-90. The series is one of attrition for the Bulls, so more than doling out free throws, any disparity in how fouls are assessed further shortens their bench and dictates which players Thibodeau can keep on the floor, for fear of maxing out with six.
Miami can play with abandon, as the Bulls see it, because it has numbers on them. Its stars rarely veer into foul trouble – James had only three games this season of more than three fouls and never fouled out, while Wade had one disqualification and five more with more than three – and there is depth for everyone else.
“I’m watching how things are going,” Thibodeau said. “I see how things are going. I watch very closely. And what I’m seeing, we’ll adjust accordingly.”
Coming from a guy who’d rather sing the anthem pregame than make excuses or shift responsibility anywhere but within, it was telling. A sign, it seemed, that the toothache of missing players had pounded on too long.
Also telling: Noah’s reaction when asked late Friday if that March 27 game and James’ gripes about it had bled into how Miami was playing and the refs were calling things now.
“Nah, I don’t think so,” the Bulls center said.
His words said one thing. His eye roll, broad enough for Broadway, said another.