- Heat vs. Bulls: Series Hub
CHICAGO – Dwyane Wade acknowledged Sunday that, yes, after eschewing the use of a mouthguard through his NBA career, he now has begun chewing one. Wade said he has been wearing the protection for his teeth and mouth since Game 1 of the Miami Heat’s Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Chicago Bulls.
Any skepticism as to how physical the combatants expected this series to be can pretty much end there. Actually, Wade said a series of blows prompted his decision to sacrifice chewing gum for some oral protection.
“Because I’ve been getting hit in the mouth too much and I’ve been getting a lot of cuts in my mouth and I can’t eat during the week,” he said after the Heat’s practice at a University of Illinois-Chicago gym. “So I decided it’s now.
“I’m a gum chewer. But getting hit in the mouth and having to deal with these cuts in my mouth for like two weeks, torture. I can’t do it no more. I finally gave in.”
Getting used to occasional bouts of dry mouth beats oral surgery and dining through a straw, possible results in a playoff series as fiercely contested as this one. Even as the tough stuff seems to be backfiring on the Bulls — they have paid the price in foul calls, technical fouls, ejections and most recently in the $35,000 fine levied on coach Tom Thibodeau for remarks about the officiating — that team is determined to keep contact high.
It sees now other way to dig out of the 2-1 hole and survive the best-of-seven series.
“Yes, I expect the physical nature to continue tomorrow,” Bulls center Joakim Noah told reporters at his team’s practice facility. “Y’know, it’s our only chance.
“It’s just that, when you have somebody like LeBron James coming at you full speed, yeah, there’s a lot of contact. It’s just a part of the game. You look at playoff basketball, it’s always physical. You look at every series, it’s physical.”
Undermanned in the absence of forward Luol Deng (illness) and guards Kirk Hinrich (calf bruise) and Derrick Rose (knee rehab), the Bulls know their skill level can’t match or top Miami’s. That has them relying more than ever on a grinding defense and enough body-on-body work to, in theory, make the Heat players — from stars James, Wade and Chris Bosh to the fleet of 3-point shooters — uncomfortable.
“We’re a hard-nosed, tough-guy team,” Chicago forward Jimmy Butler said. “That’s what we label ourselves as. That’s what we pride ourselves on. We’re going to come out swinging.”
To which the Heat basically responded: Whatever.
“None of this is new to us,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. “Nobody can hide from the fact that the games will be decided between those four lines. And our guys understand that.”
James, who was accused of a “flop” by Thibodeau on the ballyhooed play in which Bulls backup center Nazr Mohammed shoved him to the floor (and earned a swift ouster from Game 3 Friday), all but yawned over that comment.
“It’s kind of the same [as when] I heard people say I was overrated,” James said. “When you’re comfortable with who you are as a player and as a person, nothing really bothers you.”
James added: “I don’t need to flop. I play an aggressive game. I don’t flop. I’ve never been one of those guys.”
Thibodeau earned his fine from NBA headquarters with remarks suggesting the Bulls aren’t getting equal treatment from the referees. Nationally, the opinion might be that they are giving more than they’re getting, in terms of rough tactics, yet are complaining about their perceived imbalance.
Chicago’s view, from both the organization and its fans, is that Miami has done plenty of hard fouling and extracurricular contact away from or after plays. The Bulls believe the mutual muscling-up hasn’t been reflected in free throws (actually, only 84-75 favoring the Heat), in fouls (just 77-68 against Chicago) or especially the number of players forced to the bench prematurely or for the night due to fouls.
Without Deng, Hinrich or Rose, the Bulls don’t have reliable depth. So what they apparently would prefer most would be games in which both teams could get physical and neither veer into foul trouble. There’s the frustration.
The Heat, of course, aren’t going to apologize for their relative good health, their knack for getting to the line or even James’ ability to play 44:25 in Game 3 while getting whistled for zero fouls. They won’t apologize if they should go on to eliminate the shorthanded Bulls and don’t feel particularly sorry for Chicago that key players are missing. They remember how it went last spring when Bosh missed most of their semifinal series against Indiana and much of the East finals against Boston with an abdominal injury.
“And no one had empathy on us,” Wade said.
Still, the Miami shooting guard added: “Y’know, it’s unfortunate and you don’t want anyone ever [to be out]. At the end of the day, whether you dislike a team or not, the NBA is a brotherhood. When we see someone go down across the league, we feel it. You never want to see anyone be injured or not be playing.
“But no, you can’t worry about that. You’ve got to go out there and play the personnel that’s out there. You’re trying to get a win and it feels just as gratifying no matter who’s on the court.”
Or bouncing off it.