From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls went through countless grueling regular- and postseason games against the rugged and brutally tough Detroit Pistons. Those Bulls knew they had to beef up both mentally and physically in order to match the Pistons’ smash-mouth style of play. After several playoff failures, Chicago got past its biggest hurdle and nemesis, in Detroit, and jump-started six NBA championship’s worth of success.
Fast forward over two decades later, and it appears the current Bulls are in the early stages of a similar road block in their way to the franchise’s seventh tite. As tightly contested as the 2011 Eastern Conference finals were, the series certainly didn’t give the Bulls the type of physical test Thursday night’s game against the Miami Heat provided.
The Heat punched the Bulls in the mouth – literally – midway through the second quarter when James Jones shoved Joakim Noah around the face area as the two players were jockeying for rebounding position. It wasn’t a normal push out of frustration – Jones, as shown multiple times on TNT cameras, essentially cocked his arm back to deliver the blow. The veteran sharpshooter’s hit earned him a flagrant foul-two, which is an automatic ejection.
However, the gauntlet had been laid. It was the Heat, not the Bulls, who brought the physical edge that was missing from the three previous contests between the two squads this season. The hits, the stare downs, kept coming, as the Heat tied the season series at 2-2 with an 83-72 win over the Bulls at the AmericanAirlines Arena.
“They were physical, they pursued, they had a multiple-effort mentality,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters after the game. “The more you go, the more you get. They were quick to the ball. You’ve got to play through the contact, and I thought they were more aggressive.”
On a night when the Heat, minus Chris Bosh, outrebounded the Bulls 45-40 and forced 13 turnovers in the final three quarters, which they scored 14 points off of, they showed they are more than just a team that looks good on paper or on the stat sheet. Miami’s two stars, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, set the tone in the second half, seeking contact, not shying away from it.
With 9 minutes, 5 seconds left in the third quarter, Bulls guard Rip Hamilton cleared out with his elbow, a basic move to create space, but Wade took exception to it and gave a forearm shiver that sent his counterpart to the floor. Then, about four minutes later, James blindsided John Lucas III with a screen in the backcourt that sent the Bulls’ guard flying onto the ground.
In all, the Heat were assessed two flagrant fouls and one technical foul. They were the aggressors, as Thibodeau put it. The Bulls, meanwhile, were whistled for one technical, when Lucas stood up after being hammered and immediately ran toward James. The 5-foot-11 Lucas got in the 6-foot-8 James’ face, but James promptly pushed Lucas away.
Nevertheless, the Heat’s physical play was relentless, the licks kept coming, and the Bulls admittedly struggled to respond. Sure, Wade and Hamilton have mutual respect for each other, but that didn’t stop Wade.
“That’s what the playoffs are going to be about … so when somebody pushes their foot on the gas and tries to push us back, we’ve got to push it even harder,” Hamilton said. “We definitely got to get better at that.”
Last week, James flattened C.J. Watson on a pick similar to the one that clobbered Lucas. The Heat added three more heated hits on Thursday – not to mention the fact that Bulls forward Luol Deng suffered a cut on the side of his left eye late in the third quarter when he was inadvertently drilled by a Heat player.
Did the Heat simply taking advantage of a Bulls team that was without its leader in Derrick Rose, the reigning league MVP? Are the Bulls lacking a big man who can serve as an enforcer in the paint? Either way, the Bulls said afterward that they weren’t caught off-guard by the Heat’s toughness, although, clearly, Miami exhibited some added physicality in the nationally televised tilt.
“I think he was just trying to keep me off the boards and it’s just part of the game,” Noah told the assembled media when asked about his altercation with Jones.
Did the Heat display more physicality than usual?
“No,” Noah said.
How about James’ hard screen on Lucas?
“It was cool,” Noah said.
Obviously, after the game the Bulls reacted exactly the way fans would expect. The team was discouraged and well aware that it had been pushed around in a defeat that allowed the Heat to inch just one game behind Chicago in the loss column atop the Eastern Conference standings. These two clubs are on track – many believe it’s inevitable – to meet in this season’s East finals, and while the Bulls certainly weren’t favored Thursday night, it has to be alarming to Thibodeau that his team as a whole was bullied and pushed around by the smaller Heat.
“Every time we play them, that’s the way it’s going to be,” Thibodeau said. “You have to have the mental toughness to get through all of that. You can’t shy away from any of that stuff – it’s going to be there. And that’s the way we like it.”
The Bulls didn’t seem to thrive under the physical aspect of the game Thursday night. As the Heat geared up to deliver hits, Chicago struggled to conjure up retaliation and match the level of aggressiveness against its primary rival – an issue the Jordan-led Bulls also dealt with before understanding the importance of a physical edge.