CHICAGO – The Bulls should have known better.
They should have known that a game they lost by 37 points that included 51 personal fouls, nine technical fouls and two ejections couldn’t be written off as a one-time occurrence.
For all of Tom Thibodeau’s continued assertions that the Heat have the referees in their hip pocket, the Bulls should have known Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Friday night at the United Center wouldn’t be completely different.
Thibodeau warned his team as much. The Heat weren’t going to back off their physical style of play. Chris Andersen, with his sharply spiked hair, tattoo-covered body and Dennis Rodman-inspired tactics, weren’t going to stop pushing the Bulls buttons and suddenly want to join hands and sing Kumbaya.
So the message before the Bulls’ 104-94 Game 3 loss was simple: Keep your cool.
So much for that.
The first quarter hadn’t even ended when Joakim Noah was given a technical for shoving Andersen to the floor. Nazr Mohammed then gave LeBron James a warm embrace near midcourt, which led to the NBA MVP giving Mohammed what-for, which earned James a technical foul.
Before James could remove his mouthpiece and fully get his nicely worded complaint out, Mohammed responded with a two-handed shove that sent James to the floor. Mohammed was promptly ejected – the Bulls’ third dating to Game 2 when Noah and Taj Gibson were sent out early in Miami and that cost Gibson $25,000.
Except the Bulls didn’t see it that way. Carlos Boozer says he would have opted for double-technicals and calling it a day. The refeees gave James – who finished with zero personal fouls – the benefit of the doubt.
“From my angle,” Thibodeau started, “I just saw a guy basically flop and .... I’m going to leave it at that.”
Response, King James?
“He said I flopped?” James said, smirking. “OK.”
This being Chicago, fans loved every second of the melee, casting James as the villain and chanting Mohammed’s name as if he had just been crowned emperor of the basketball universe.
As much as they couldn’t afford such a hot-headed move, the Bulls fed off of it. Despite Thibodeau’s pleas to pay more attention to the game plan and less to the referees, the Bulls continued to be fueled by the kind of raw emotion that tends to surface during the NHL – or strike that – NBA playoffs.
There was pushing. There was shoving. There were words exchanged. And given what Thibodeau claims his team is up against, there Bulls don’t have any other choice but to scrap for everything they’ve got.
“I see how things are going, I watch very closely,” Thibodeau said. “And with what I’m seeing, we’ll adjust accordingly.
“When you play this team, you have to have a lot of mental, physical and emotional toughness and things aren’t going to go your way. That’s the way it is. We’re not going to get calls and that’s reality. But we have to find a way to get it done.”
But maybe at this point, the Bulls don’t have any other option but to rely on hot-blooded heart.
For all the talk of a possible Derrick Rose return and reports that Kirk Hinrich may be well enough to play as early as Monday’s Game 4, the Bulls are woefully short-handed. Mohammed’s ejection just made that more evident and forced Noah to log more minutes. Despite all of the gaping holes in their lineup, despite the fact that they once again allowed their emotions to get the best of them, the Bulls managed to somehow not allow Game 3 to get out of hand.
They did it with hard-nosed defense. They did it by not backing down. Boozer, who had all but disappeared for the series’ first two games, again became a relevant part of the Bulls’ game plan with 21 points. Noah, who said after the Game 2 debacle that the Bulls got punched in the mouth, again help spearhead an emotional performance that kept the towel-waving crowd engaged to the final buzzer.
“I thought we played well at times tonight,” Boozer said. “We just have to clean some things up and get the win on Monday.”
If the Bulls are going to keep this series close, which means winning Monday’s Game 4, they have to be smarter. No more retaliation. No more clawing every time the Heat poke their cage. No more excuses.
It was clear they didn’t learn from Game 2. For their sake, they better learn from Game 3.
• Jeff Arnold is a sports reporter for the Northwest Herald. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @NWH_JeffArnold.