The Chicago Bulls have already defied the odds and proven their doubters wrong in these playoffs. But something had to give.
No Luol Deng. No Kirk Hinrich. Still no Rose.
No problem. The Bulls came away with something as rare as hens' teeth: a Game 7 road win.
Then they headed to South Beach and did something that had only happened four times all year—beat the Miami Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena. Suddenly, LeBron James and Co. looked mortal, and the Bulls were rolling without a point guard and their All-Star small forward.
But the Heat are NBA champs for a reason, and they know how to deal with a team that wants to beat them up. Chicago wanted to make it ugly, so Miami made it chippy instead.
And that's when the Bulls faltered. They allowed their own egos to get the better of them, and they harmed their team in the process. Through their two losses in the series, the Bulls have looked childish and impudent.
Ego is the word for "I" in Latin, and Chicago seems obsessed with the I instead of the We.
Basketball is a team sport, but the Bulls have proven to be too wrapped up in their own egos (that which distinguishes the self from other selves), and by this, they crippled their team after being in the driver's seat following Game 1.
Game 2: Foul Hard
In Game 1, the only technical fouls called came on two separate defensive three-seconds violations. It was a physical, gritty game, but everyone kept their cool for the most part.
Game 2 looked completely different. Officials wasted no time, whistling Dwyane Wade for a technical foul because he said something 22 seconds into the game. And it was all downhill from there.
Between the overly sensitive refs and the increasingly pugnacious play on the floor, the powder keg was ready to blow. In all, 51 personal fouls, nine technicals and one flagrant got handed out.
Joakim Noah and James got tangled up under the hoop near the end of the first quarter, and after a couple of errant elbows, both received technicals. Marquis Teague and Nate Robinson each picked up techs in the second quarter.
Miami played scrappy—and possibly dirty—basketball for much of the game. A Shane Battier wrestling pin and a Chris Bosh elbow numbered among the highlights of that.
But the coup de grace came early in the fourth quarter with the score completely lopsided. Miami led by 35 points and Chris Andersen seemingly goaltended a shot from Teague, but the refs made no call.
Ray Allen sank a layup at the other end, and Noah came off the bench to argue the goaltending non-call, picking up his second technical foul and an ejection.
Taj Gibson then began screaming obscenities at referee Scott Foster and got slapped with two technicals for his uncouth behavior. He earned a $25,000 fine for his tantrum and had some interesting things to say about his ill-advised double-techs.
After the game, Gibson told the media, "It's one of those games that's chippy; it's playoff basketball, words are going to be said. I don't mean any harm to Scott (Foster, the official he yelled at). He's a good referee sometimes...I should have ended it a better way, and conducted myself in a better way and just walked away. It's just frustration." (ESPNChicago.com).
Yes, Taj, frustration indeed. Perhaps Tom Thibodeau should have spent some time with his team reviewing how to deal with frustration before analyzing how to keep LeBron out of the paint.
But there's no way the Bulls would lose their composure at home, right?
Game 3: Foul Hard with a Vengeance
Prior to Game 3, the teams did not shake hands before tipoff.
And as it turned out, Nazr Mohammed would be the most important player on the court, just not because he did anything well.
With Chicago leading 31-28 early in the second quarter, LeBron James grabbed a defensive rebound and dribbled just past half court. Mohammed challenged him and, as their arms got locked up, James spun around, flinging Mohammed to the court.
The referee standing right in front of the play immediately whistled LeBron for a technical foul, but Mohammed got up from the floor and shoved James in the chest, sending him dramatically sliding into the paint.
After a conference between the officials, they ejected Mohammed from the game.
Nazr's action was absent-minded at best and outright dumb at worst. He had already won the battle as LeBron had been assessed a tech, but he just had to retaliate to preserve some selfish sense of manhood.
The Bulls were already playing short-handed with Deng or Hinrich, and Mohammed's ejection left Tom Thibodeau hamstrung for any depth.
Daequan Cook, Richard Hamilton, Vladimir Radmanovic and Malcolm Thomas remained glued to their seats on the sideline as Thibs went with a seven-man rotation in Nazr's absence. Jimmy Butler played the whole game, just as he had in Game 1.
Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli and Noah saw a combined total of 17 minutes of rest for the entire game, and part of that was only because the latter two fouled out in the final minute.
To their credit, the gritty Bulls narrowed the deficit to three points late in the game, but they couldn't stop Miami from hitting their shots down the stretch and got outscored by 10 points in the fourth quarter. And just like that, they had frittered away the home-court advantage they had briefly captured.
Contrition and Instinct
Mohammed took to Twitter to apologize for his silly action and respond to the avalanche of bile aimed at his account. He tweeted, "Sorry for my overreaction & being ejected. I blacked out & just reacted after I was pushed down. I'm happy it only resulted w/ a push," continuing, "For the kids who were watching... That not the way to react on the basketball court."
While it is encouraging to see Mohammad say "sorry," it is somewhat worrying to see him say he "blacked out." Perhaps he should consult with an anger-management counselor.
He then retweeted a vulgar post from one particularly hateful fan, appending, "God bless u and ur family." He concluded by writing:
So both Gibson and Mohammed are contrite over losing their cool, but part of being a professional is sublating your emotions for the good of the team. You need to remain in control of yourself at all times, and a little contact from LeBron or a blown goaltending call cannot cause you to blow your stack.
Thibodeau downplayed Mohammed's act, giving his own terse assessment postgame, "From my angle, I just saw a guy basically flop" (per AP, via ESPN.com). Perhaps that gives a basis for understanding why the Bulls don't put more emphasis on remaining calm and not lashing out.
The Road Ahead
All is not lost for Chicago just yet.
Heading into the series, the Bulls figured to head back to Chicago down 0-2 and needing to win their home games. That's precisely the situation they're in after Game 3—behind two games to one.
With Deng and Hinrich still questionable for Game 4 and Mohammed possibly facing a suspension along with his fine, Chicago's rotation remains in doubt.
And yet, Carlos Boozer showed some signs of life on offense in Game 3, even as Robinson and Belinelli couldn't find their rhythm.
The Bulls' tenacity and physicality will keep them close to the Heat, but they lack Miami's icy-cold demeanor. When James was asked if he thought about retaliating on Mohammed for the shove, he replied, "Nope. I mean too much to my team" (per FOX Sports).
Miami wants to win another championship. They don't care about saving face, or looking tough or getting the last shot in.
Such selfless thoughts never occurred to Mohammed and he let "instinct" get the better of him, because the I was more important than the We. And there's no "i" in "we."