By Mike McGraw
After losing for the first time in 28 games Wednesday, Miami’s LeBron James sat at his locker and complained about the rough treatment he received from the Bulls.
From the Bulls’ perspective, those comments could serve as a chapter in the how-to guide of beating the Heat. Especially if the best-case scenario occurs and these teams meet in the playoffs with Derrick Rose back in uniform.
But slow down a second. The Bulls probably reached the proper limit of physical play Wednesday at the United Center, and it paid off in a 101-97 victory, snapping Miami’s 27-game winning streak.
There’s a tradition among NBA referees where the more aggressive team usually gets away with more. That means attacking the basket, hitting the glass and making the first contact when battling for position.
The Bulls executed this concept well against the Heat. Even while putting heavy emphasis on getting back defensively, they took advantage of Miami’s small lineup and won the second-chance points 22-8.
While limiting the Heat to a reasonable 11 fastbreak points, the Bulls tried to use their fouls wisely. Simply put, a soft foul against James is asking for a 3-point play. The Bulls were smart to finish their fouls, so to speak, and not let him get a shot off.
Did the Bulls cross the line? Well, they certainly stood close to the line. Taj Gibson’s shoulder grab in the fourth quarter wasn’t a flagrant foul, but an argument could be made that Kirk Hinrich’s two-armed tackle in the first half deserved to be more than a common foul.
“Those are not basketball plays,” James argued. “It’s been happening all year and I’ve been able to keep my cool and try to tell ‘Spo (coach Erik Spoelstra), ‘Let’s not worry about it too much.’
“It is getting to me a little bit, because every time I try to defend myself, I’ve got to face the consequences of a flagrant on me or a technical foul or whatever the case may be.”
James referenced his retaliation for Gibson’s foul. On the next trip down the floor, he threw his shoulder into Carlos Boozer’s chest on a screen and was called for a flagrant foul. It happened late in the game but didn’t affect the outcome very much, since the Bulls managed just 1 point from the resulting free throws plus possession.
“It’s tough. It’s very tough, and I’m not sitting here crying about anything, because I play the game at a high level with a lot of aggression and I understand that some of the plays are on the border of being a basketball play or not,” James added.
Teammate Dwyane Wade took the argument one step further.
“I’m surprised he hasn’t done it before,” Wade said. “A big guy like (James), no one really wants to see him start trying to inflict pain on other people. He plays the game the right way, and it’s unfortunate.”
James is a spectacular athlete and has earned a spot as one of the 10 best players in NBA history. But over the years, Bulls fans have witnessed his poor sportsmanship in Cleveland (kudos to the Heat for putting a stop to the sideline dancing) and endured the 2011 conference finals when James faked shots to the face and got all kinds of foul calls that Rose didn’t.
Does he play the game the right way? Most of the time, yes. And the same could be said about the Bulls. If James isn’t angry after losing a game to the Bulls, they’re not doing their job.
There was so much more to Wednesday’s victory, though, starting with stellar performances from Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer.
Coach Tom Thibodeau loves to say Deng will do whatever the team needs. Bulls fans, no doubt, would like to see a few more 28-point games with 2 clutch 3-pointers down the stretch in the fourth quarter.
Boozer (21 points, 17 rebounds) seemed to relish the chance to get rough with a couple of former teammates — James (in Cleveland) and Shane Battier (at Duke).
The play late in the fourth quarter where Boozer outmuscled Battier and Chris Bosh for an offensive rebound, then put in the hoop over James, might have been the highlight of his Bulls career.
Whether Wednesday’s win turns out to be the best highlight of the season or a steppingstone for the playoffs remains to be seen. Deng summed it up well after the game.
“We’ve been saying it all year: When we’re at our best we can beat anybody, and when we’re at our worst we can lose to anybody,” he said. “It’s something we all believe in. it’s a good thing to have when you believe that when you focus and lock in, you could beat anybody.”
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