CHICAGO -- The vogue thing to talk about heading into tonight’s Game 3 of the Miami Heat-Chicago Bulls series is good old “physical play.”
It’s a common discussion point in every playoff series. Just like when one team loses, they say the other team was “more aggressive.” When there’s a technical foul or a flagrant called, the discourse instantly turns to “physicality.”
But let’s dispense with those boiler plates and get right down to it: The Heat want technical fouls called, they want flagrant fouls called, and they want whistles to fill the air all night. Even if some of those techs and flagrant fouls are against them. With every foul called, the Heat gain more of an edge.
Learning that the famously fickle Joey Crawford will be the crew chief for Game 3 is fine with the Heat. As far as they’re concerned, let Crawford T up the entire sideline. There were 51 fouls called in Game 2; why not go for 60 in Game 3?
Understand the rationale. If the Bulls are going to have any chance of pulling off the upset in this series, it’s vital they are allowed to play rough. They have to be able to jostle LeBron James and Dwyane Wade when they come to the rim. They have to be allowed to get away with hand-to-hand battles for rebounds.
The Bulls need there to be as few fouls as possible. And the last thing they want is for officials to be so nervous about a fight breaking out that they become oversensitive to regular playoff basketball and start issuing technicals to assert control.
Chicago’s lone advantage in this series is its size and ability to destroy the Heat’s often potent offensive firepower by beating them up. It needs games to be played slow and sore, not free and fast, like the Heat much prefer. Plus the Bulls have a depth issue due to injuries. Every foul cuts into the game plan and the bench.
“I understand the refs are going to try to control the game as much as possible, so you have to adjust to it,” James said. “We know definitely this game is going to be physical, and we look forward to it. It's a rivalry with this team. They don't like us. We don't like them. That's how it is.”
Let’s break that code: Is what James is really saying by “I understand” is “The refs should.”
You don’t have to recall too far back to the last time the Heat were in Chicago. The night the Bulls ended Miami’s 27-game win streak, the Heat were furious the Bulls were allowed to bash and batter James and Wade.
That night there were just 35 fouls called and one flagrant (the NBA later added one to Taj Gibson), and it was on James for a retaliation play against Carlos Boozer. James was angry, coach Erik Spoelstra was angry, and the Bulls were victorious.
“I play the game at a high level. I play with a lot of aggression. I understand that some of the plays are on the borderline of a basketball play or not,” James said that night in March in what were some of his most pointed comments of the season. “But sometimes, you know? I don’t know. … It’s frustrating.”
Heat president Pat Riley has issued two statements this season. One was in December as he complained about other teams “taking privilege” by roughing up their star players, especially Wade who had just been suspended. The other was directly at Boston Celtics’ president Danny Ainge, who Riley told to “shut the [expletive] up” when Ainge went on the radio and bashed James for complaining about fouls in that loss in Chicago.
So what do you think Riley was thinking when he was sitting courtside in Game 2 and watching the officials repeatedly jump in to whistle technical and flagrants on the Bulls? Even when it was Heat players “taking privilege” with Bulls players like Marco Belinelli or Nate Robinson, the officials jumping in favored the Heat’s ends. Riley must have been thinking he won this round of influence.
As you look at the way the brackets break down, it’s possible the Heat may have to deal with teams like the Indiana Pacers and the Memphis Grizzlies before it’s over. These teams play much like the Bulls, and their game plan will be much like Chicago’s, beat the Heat up and out.
Regardless of the rhetoric, the Heat will welcome Game 2’s trend continuing from now until they hope to hold another Larry O’Brien Trophy.