Commentary

Bulls' heart goes only so far

While Miami is playing for another championship, Chicago left to play for pride

Updated: May 11, 2013, 2:40 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- In Nazr Mohammed's world, you check the cutter, you don't give up fast-break points and a two-handed shove to the chest is nothing more than a handshake.

In Tom Thibodeau's world, referees call a completely even game.

But it's not Nazr Mohammed's world. Or Tom Thibodeau's world.

[+] EnlargeTom Thibodeau
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesBulls coach Tom Thibodeau finds his team down 2-1 to the Heat.

This is the NBA playoffs. It's LeBron James' world and, on this night, Joey Crawford's world, too.

In the confines of a heated Eastern Conference semifinal series against the top dog Miami Heat that required the presence of law-and-order referee Crawford, Mohammed's highly GIF-able shove of James got him ejected in the second quarter Friday night. The fans in the 300 level of the United Center chanted his name as he was escorted out, and we all knew it was a pivotal moment.

James didn't retaliate with elbows or jumpers, but he helped close a Miami win with a strong fourth quarter in a 104-94 victory that gave the Heat a 2-1 lead in the series.

"I'm here to play basketball," James said. "I don't really get into the extracurricular of things. I mean too much to my team to even get involved in stuff like that."

That's the difference between the Heat and the Bulls right now. Chicago can win some fights and feed off the energy of its fans. Miami is just trying to win a championship.

With no Derrick Rose, no Luol Deng and no Kirk Hinrich, the Bulls can't do that. They're just trying to get this series to a sixth game. Get it to seven, and they might hang a banner.

The Bulls need to rely on passion since they don't have the healthy talent.

Hard work, hustle and the rest of the basketball cliche pile won't win the Bulls this series. But you have to respect their effort and their commitment to entertaining the Heat haters who populate Chicago and most of the free world.

In this game, Bulls fans/Heat haters got to celebrate, in no particular order, Joakim Noah clapping and yelling as Chris Bosh chewed out Mario Chalmers, Nate Robinson running around like a hype man at a Biggie concert circa 1995, Robinson blocking a James layup, Noah shoving Chris Andersen, and, of course, Mohammed's LeShove.

Thibodeau When you play [the Heat], you have to have a lot of mental, physical and emotional toughness. And things aren't going to go your way. That's the way it is. We're not going to get calls. That's reality. We still have to find a way to get it done. And we can.

-- Tom Thibodeau

At halftime, I half-expected postgame interviews at the 12th District police station.

But this isn't the "Bad Boys" league anymore. That's why Crawford was in the house. That's why Thibodeau was speaking to the referees through the media and why the Heat have been complaining about the Bulls' physicality for three years.

"It's a different league from when I got into the league," said Mohammed, a 15-year veteran. "I see a lot of things that I didn't see years ago. I was surprised but it doesn't amaze me."

"That's the way our league is now," Robinson said. "It's not like back in the day with Isiah Thomas, when guys damn near got into fights and no one got kicked out."

Noah and Taj Gibson were ejected from Game 2, and given the way the series was unfolding, everyone knew this was going to be a tightly called game. It nearly got ugly when Mohammed was tossed with 9:29 left in the first half. After he and James got into a tangle when Mohammed stopped James on the break, James elbowed the center to the ground, and Mohammed got up and the Chicagoan in him came out. With James' head turned as he argued the foul call on him, Mohammed shoved the MVP, who went flying. Mohammed said he acted on instinct and didn't even know what he had done until he got to the locker room.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Boozer
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty ImagesFor the first time in the series, the Bulls got a contribution from Carlos Boozer in Game 3 with a team-high 21 points.

But here's the thing, a referee protecting the league's biggest star isn't exactly breaking news.

"I'm not going to get into that; who knows?" Mohammed said. "That's for you guys to write about. It's not for me. I'm on my way out of this league, and it's his league. You guys make the decision."

"You see LeBron in a lot of commercials," Robinson said. "He does a lot of good acting."

"From my angle, I just saw a guy basically flop," Thibodeau said. "You know. And I'm going to leave it at that."

James has never deigned to recognize the Bulls as a real rival, and he wasn't about to fight a backup center when he's dreaming about diamond rings.

"If it would have happened on the playground, it would have been a different story because I had a bunch of friends and a bunch of buddies that wouldn't have allowed that," James said. "I haven't been in a situation like that before. But I'm too cool. If I get kicked out and Nazr Mohammed gets kicked out, they win. It's that simple."

In his short tenure as a head coach, Thibodeau has made it a point to never whine, to never place blame anywhere but in failures of team concepts. However, at this juncture, he knows it's his job to send a message through the media.

"When you play [the Heat], you have to have a lot of mental, physical and emotional toughness," Thibodeau said. "And things aren't going to go your way. That's the way it is. We're not going to get calls. That's reality. We still have to find a way to get it done. And we can."

Well, no. But the Bulls will die trying. Perhaps literally given their luck lately.

James led all scorers with 25 points, but with Jimmy Butler guarding him and the other Bulls helping, he hit only 6 of 17 shots from the field. James converted 11 of 11 from the free throw line. He scored 12 in the fourth, seven coming from the line.

For the fourth time in the past five games, Butler played all 48 minutes. He scored 17 points, and added five rebounds, three assists and three steals. Thibodeau just can't understand why he doesn't get calls. Butler got two quick fouls in the first quarter. Instead of pulling him, Thibodeau put Butler on Shane Battier.

In Thibodeau's perfect world, Butler should be hearing applause, not whistles.

"Jimmy plays with great demeanor, great toughness," Thibodeau said. "He's a great body position guy, a great body position guy. I'm watching him play defense and I'm looking at some of the things that are being called on him. ... But he's got a lot of toughness; he'll figure it out."

One thing the Bulls won't figure out is how to beat the Heat with seven or eight guys and no Deng, Hinrich or Rose. As Thibodeau said, this is the reality.

The Bulls got beat 12-7 on the boards in the fourth and made just 1 of 9 3-pointers. When you're playing seven guys, fatigue is a factor, no matter how much the Bulls deny it.

There are still at least two more games for Bulls fans to enjoy in this series. Two more games to boo James from the 100 level or your living room. Two more games to enjoy Butler's emergence, Robinson's Houdini act and Noah's career-making season.

But while the Bulls are playing for pride, Miami is playing for a championship. The difference between the two is timeless.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.