CHICAGO -- It's a miracle he lasted this long. There have been so many different moments that have tested the extremes of his patience. But finally on Friday night, Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau reached his breaking point.
In a no-luck season where the Bulls have manufactured a commendable run, Thibodeau has been the constant rock. He probably should not be blamed for cracking after the Miami Heat won Game 3, 104-94, to expectedly take control of the series, 2-1.
You understand it, but it's still wrong.
In the game's final moments, Thibodeau just stared down with an unflinching and accusatory glare at veteran official Joey Crawford, who stared right back at him. The slow burn continued when Thibodeau, who has an iron reputation for rejecting excuses, blamed the officials for his team's plight in the series.
Watching the Bulls fight with their backups so vigilantly, pushing the Heat to the brink, it's easy to forget just how preposterously outmanned they are.
The Bulls have played like desperados in these playoffs, which is to say they're a bunch of desperate men. These may well be their last acts.
Joakim Noah was out of line when he shoved the Heat's Chris Andersen in the first half after a hard but clean foul on Nate Robinson. Nazr Mohammed was out of line when he came at LeBron James and shoved him a few minutes later. And Thibodeau is out of line for letting his emotions get the better of him as he grunted his disgust at the refs. He knows better than that.
"I see how things are going, I watch very closely," Thibodeau said. "We're not going to get calls, that's reality."
Essentially, Thibodeau was hinting that the old fix is in. The officials and the league want the Heat to win, so that's what's going to happen. He said it knowing that's a taboo subject and probably will get him a fine. Maybe he said it in the classic manner of trying to set some sort of tone for the next game. But what a disappointing way to turn from the battle-axe coach who just got too caught up to realize he knows better.
Unfortunately, that's not reality. Reality is the Heat have a massive margin for error against the Bulls, and it's so clear and so frustrating that it's driving a competition junkie like Thibodeau right out of his personality.
James has only played about four good quarters in the three games thus far, and it's been enough to have the Heat in the driver's seat. On Friday, James only played like an MVP for 12 minutes, but they were the last 12 minutes and his 12 fourth-quarter points did the Bulls in.
Eventually, James is going to have to rediscover the form he had during the regular season and first round against the Milwaukee Bucks if the Heat are going to repeat as champs. But against the Bulls he is getting by without it so far.
Dwyane Wade has been nonexistent. He's shooting reasonably well -- when he shoots, which isn't much. He's in the midst of one of the worst playoff series of his career, averaging just 13 points. Wade has taken three free throws in three games, which is an unheard of ratio and raises questions about his health. It's arguable Bulls backup Marco Belinelli has generally played Wade to a draw so far, which is a big concern for the Heat going forward, but they're still ahead.
That's because Norris Cole is playing fantastically and has hit all eight of his 3-point attempts. Chris Bosh is averaging a double-double and, in a mild surprise, more than holding his own against Noah. Bosh had one of his finest playoff games in a Heat uniform in Game 3, outdueling Noah with 20 points and 19 rebounds.
That breakdown is why the Heat have a big margin for error, and that is often what defines playoff series.
Thibodeau was steaming because the Heat took 15 free throws in the fourth quarter. He was angry that Noah fouled out and especially angry with an over-the-back call late in the game when Noah raked the arm of Bosh fighting for a vital rebound. He was despondent that Jimmy Butler was called for two tick-tack fouls early in the game that took away his effectiveness. He's still upset that Udonis Haslem smashed Robinson on the first play of Game 2, one that looked suspicious.
On some of these points Thibodeau is right. James got bailed out on a call or two Friday. The Butler fouls were cheap. But to blame officials is not becoming, and it's not Thibodeau.
"From my angle, I saw a guy basically flop," Thibodeau said referring to James after Mohammed pushed him. "I don't think it warranted an ejection. I understand a flagrant foul, I understand that, but ejection, no, nope."
How hard James fell was not relevant, and Thibodeau knows it. Not only did Mohammed earn the ejection, but there's a least some danger he'll earn a suspension. Escalating a situation is a major no-no in the NBA. Coming at a player, whether he's the MVP or not, in a series that has already been so testy, with officials on edge is simply not accepted.
"I'm on my way out of this league," said Mohammed, a 15-year veteran. "And it's his league. You decide (if he would've been ejected had he pushed another player)."
James was called for a technical on the play for elbowing Mohammed; the veteran official Crawford was on top of the play and nailed James quickly in an attempt to diffuse the situation. It was good officiating and made what Mohammed did all that much harder to believe.
"I haven't been in a situation like that before," James said. "But if I get kicked out and Nazr gets kicked out at the same time, they win. It's that simple. "
It is that simple: The Heat have James and they have the better team, and a call here and there is not going to change that. Derrick Rose isn't playing, Kirk Hinrich's calf is a mess and Luol Deng is recovering from a terrible health scare.
It doesn't feel fair to the Bulls, but that's the way it is.