Miami Heat get down and dirty to grab the Chicago Bulls by the horns
LeBron James and co have had to get physical to hold off bullying efforts of Chicago
LeBron James of the Miami Heat shoots against Nazr Mohammed of the Chicago Bulls in Game Four of the NBA Eastern Conference semi-finals during the 2013 NBA Playoffs at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. The Heat defeated the Bulls 88-65. Photograph: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
At United Center in Chicago, where no championship banner has been raised since 1998, Michael Jordan remains the bronzed guardian of greatness, firm and proud outside the building in midflight, 11½ feet above ground level.
Nobody can commit too harmful a foul on the 2,000-pound Jordan statue. Nobody can knock the legend from his pedestal. And that is how shapers of NBA lore and a generation of Jordan worshippers prefer to recall him, as opposed to his being fouled to the floor by the likes of Bill Laimbeer and Anthony Mason.
History will presumably repeat itself someday for LeBron James, increasingly recognised as Jordan of the 21st century. A play-off series like the one James and the Miami Heat are engaged in against the undermanned Bulls – rough and tumble as it was until the fight seemed to go out of the Bulls on Monday night – will probably be remembered as a pothole on the path to the top of the pro basketball mountain.
“I’m here to play basketball,” said James, staking out high ground, before the Heat gave the exhausted Bulls an 88-65 conventional pummelling to take a 3-1 lead in their Eastern Conference semi-final.
Without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, the Bulls have had little choice but to turn what is normally combative play-off basketball into a holy war of rhetoric and redemption. For the sake of orchestration, they have the perfect conductor in coach Tom Thibodeau, a disciple of Jeff Van Gundy’s and thus a descendant of Pat Riley’s.
The names change, along with the roles, but there is a thematic continuity to the play-offs, from one decade to another and another. Riley, Miami’s grand architect and author of famous phrases of play-off bellicosity, once unleashed his inelegant New York Knicks in an attempt to bloody Jordan and especially Scottie Pippen. Twenty years later, Thibodeau has inspired his undermanned army to leave no spot on the court untouched by skin and no foul uncommitted in a valiant struggle for survival against James and co.
“We’re that hard-nosed, tough-guy team,” the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler said. “That’s what we label ourselves as, and that’s what we pride ourselves on. We’re going to come out swinging and fighting.”
We roll our eyes at the hyperbolic talking points, but give James credit for not taking the bait when Nazr Mohammed shoved him in the chest in game three. James had the presence of mind to sit on his derriere from the supposed force of the contact, which underscored the difficulty for all Miami opponents of getting under the skin of a superstar who is as comfortable with himself as James has become.
When the ringless Jordan was still in career ascension, the Bad Boy Pistons of suburban Detroit – with Laimbeer and Isiah Thomas – succeeded on numerous occasions in bullying and beating the Bulls. But that was before embarrassing outbursts of play-off violence forced Commissioner David Stern to confront a troubling double standard: America was less enamoured of large black men pummelling one another than white hockey enforcers or helmeted football players.
By the time Riley and Van Gundy were trying to yank Jordan and company off their throne, the lines of acceptable physicality had shifted. “Meet force with force” – the axiomatic frothing espoused by Riley in New York and Miami, and by Van Gundy – typically backfired. NBA officials were, and remain, trained to spare the league national embarrassment.
Thibodeau, who spent seven years as a Knicks assistant, is an excellent defensive coach and motivator, a consumed lifer who breathes the game for sustenance. It has been easy to root for and champion such dedication. It is easier still in the case of Thibodeau, who has been accompanied by the rotten luck of losing Rose, the league’s most valuable player two years ago, for all but one game of two play-off seasons.
Then again, Rose dealt with a variety of ailments last season before he blew out a knee in Game 1 of the first round. Chicago has waited and waited for Rose’s return, but if the fear of reinjuring himself was holding him back, how could he talk himself into returning to a rugby scrum of a series?
Is Thibodeau’s grinding style ideal for a smallish point guard who spends so much time navigating the entanglement of larger bodies on the way to the rim? That may be a future quandary. For this play-off season, even Riley’s team would have to agree that the Bulls deserve admiration and respect for winning five games so far. But Miami is no doubt grateful for the opportunity to show again that it is no South Beach softy, either.
“It’s not as if they’re trying to play a more physical style than we are,” said coach Erik Spoelstra, whose biggest worry Monday night had to be the condition of Dwyane Wade’s aching right knee. “And that’s a wide misconception about us. We’ve proven we can get our hands dirty.”
They proved it by holding the depleted Bulls to 25.7 per cent shooting in game four. They got their hands figuratively dirty and are poised to get out of this series without getting bloody. That is the fine line not to cross when you have James – the best player on the planet – to protect. New York Times