The Chicago Bulls aren't a team that makes excuses often, largely thanks to the culture brought by coach Tom Thibodeau a season ago, but they were confused more than anything near the end of Sunday afternoon's 97-93 defeat to the Miami Heat.
With the Heat leading 94-93 with 16.8 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Heat star LeBron James, who poured in a game-high 35 points, was intentionally fouled by the Bulls and went to the free throw line, where he missed a pair. His second miss was short to the left and the Bulls appeared to be in solid rebounding position. But Heat guard Dwyane Wade swooped in -- as his counterpart, Rip Hamilton, failed to box him out -- and tipped a ball that was heading out of bounds back into play. However, Thibodeau and his players believed that Wade was out of bounds when he made the play and that it should have been the visitors' ball. In the middle of all that, an official mistakenly blew his whistle that led to a brief conference and a jump ball at midcourt.
After James won the tip against Taj Gibson, the Bulls were forced to foul Mario Chalmers and the Heat guard knocked down 1-of-2 from the charity stripe to give the Heat a 95-93 lead with 9.9 seconds left. Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, who dazzled the AmericanAirlines Arena crowd all afternoon en route to 34 points, was able to get an attempt off to tie the game, but he left a floater -- a shot he had been knocking down with great accuracy all day -- short as multiple defenders, including James and Chris Bosh, swarmed him. There's no question that the inadvertent whistle was poor officiating, and plenty of Bulls fans felt as if the referees had made inconsistent calls throughout the game.
Thibodeau, smartly, refused to delve into the details behind the play and what explanation he received from the officials after they made their decision. "I'll just leave it alone. I'll just leave it alone. I'm not going to say anything. All you've got to do is look at the tape," he told reporters after the game.
Added Bulls center Joakim Noah: "I thought it was a whistle in the crowd. I mean that was a bad sequence. Things like that happen in basketball games but it's unfortunate that it happened in such an important moment in the game.
"D. Wade's clearly out of bounds on the play at the end, and for them to get the possession back in that situation [is] tough, it happens."
Actually, ABC's replays of the sequence appeared to show that Wade had both feet in play and made a legal move on the ball to save it. Still, it was hard for the Bulls to swallow the fact that two critical plays in the game were, as they felt, miscues by the officials. The entire Bulls' bench was irate when James appeared to steal the jump ball. Players are supposed to wait for the ball to be on its way down before getting a hand on it.
"Once the ref blows the whistle, I thought the play was dead," Hamilton said of the false whistle. "And he signaled that timeout from our side. But they came together, they changed it. That's just the game."
Noah surging: Following a slow start to the season, Noah has put together strong efforts on a game to game basis over the past couple weeks. He posted a season-high 16 rebounds to go along with 15 points in Friday night's 107-100 win over the Milwaukee Bucks. He admittedly was upset with his play against the Heat last spring, when he averaged just six points on 31.7 percent shooting in the Bulls' five-game series loss.
Noah got some redemption on Sunday afternoon, though, dropping 11 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and three blocks. The 6-foot-11 big man is putting up 8.3 points and 9.1 rebounds per game this season and has averaged 12.1 points and 11.8 rebounds in his last six games. Noah appears to be past his early-season struggles, and the Bulls know that they're an even tougher team to beat when he brings his recent level of energy night in and night out.
"He did a good job," Thibodeau told the assembled media when asked about Noah's outing. "Very active. Hustled, played good defense, [had] multiple effort plays."
Meanwhile, fellow front-court starter Carlos Boozer struggled for most of the afternoon and dealt with foul trouble the final three quarters. He ended up with 10 points and nine rebounds while shooting 5-for-10 from the field, missing 5-of-7 jumpers, in 28 minutes.
Although the much-maligned Boozer did make two crucial baskets and rebounds late in the game, performances like Sunday afternoon infuriate Bulls fans who expect the big-money forward to step up and shoulder some of the offensive burden off Rose.
To make matters worse in the Boozer household, TV cameras caught his sons chanting, "Let's go Heat!" in the fourth quarter -- not to mention the fact that his counterpart, Bosh, had 24 points and 12 rebounds for the Heat.
Still, Boozer's had a strong January, averaging almost 16 points, nine rebounds and one steal in 18 contests. The Bulls wrap up the month by playing the second game of a nine-game road trip on Monday night against the Washington Wizards.