CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls' Eastern Conference semifinal series went from competitive to contentious in Tuesday's Game 5 106-101 Cavs win when Chicago's Taj Gibson kicked Cleveland's Matthew Dellavedova while the Cavs guard was lying on the ground.
Gibson, who started in place of the injured Pau Gasol, was called for a flagrant foul 2 and ejected from the game after the officials reviewed the play.
The incident occurred with 10:25 remaining in the fourth quarter after Aaron Brooks' layup cut Cleveland's lead to 83-73. Dellavedova tried to box out Gibson while Brooks' shot was in the air, and Gibson shoved Dellavedova in the back, making him fall to the floor. While on the floor, Dellavedova squeezed both of his legs around one of Gibson's feet, prompting the Bulls big man to kick him.
For his part, Gibson was adamant he did not kick Dellavedova -- as replays suggest.
"I didn't kick [Dellavedova] at all," Gibson said. "He just leg-locked me. It got chippy at the end, of course. They didn't call a foul ... I tried to pull my leg back. It looked like I kicked him from the way of the force I was pulling my leg out, but I have to deal with the consequences they ejected me. I have to deal with whatever the league has to say, but I didn't kick him at all."
Gibson said he didn't speak to Dellavedova but just looked at him after he got his leg untangled.
"I gave him a look like, 'What are you doing? This is basketball,'" Gibson said. "This [isn't] wrestling, but it got chippy. Both teams kind of swarmed the situation and made it bigger than what it was, but nobody threw any punches. I'm just sad that I couldn't finish the game and help my team."
Dellavedova similarly pleaded ignorance when asked if he indeed purposefully wrapped up Gibson in a leg lock.
"I don't really know. I was just trying to get up," Dellavedova. "And then a bit of a push and shove."
Gibson also pushed Dellavedova to the floor on an earlier possession in the fourth quarter after setting a screen on him.
Dellavedova did remember when Gibson "pushed me in the back," however. LeBron James used more colorful description: "Taj elbows Delly in the back of the head and puts him to the ground. You know they kind of get tangled up a little bit and he kicks him."
What angered Gibson almost as much as the ejection was the fact that fans threw objects at him as he was escorted off the floor by Bulls head of security Eric Buck.
"That's what happens when you're in Cleveland," Gibson said. "[That's the] second time in a row they threw stuff at us. It's classless, but we're here to play basketball. I can't focus on that kind of stuff."
Bulls center Joakim Noah was fined $25,000 for pushing a fan on his way to the locker room during halftime of Game 2 in Cleveland. Comcast SportsNet Chicago reported that Noah told security that a fan spit at him after Game 2.
Despite the unruly environment at times, Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler noted that Gibson can't lose his cool like that.
"I don't think [the play] is flagrant 2-worthy," Butler said. "But Taj still can't let that happen. Just got to stay cool, walk away and onto the next play."
Given the intense circumstances, Gibson handled his postgame media session well. He calmly answered questions and explained his side of the story. The Bulls are going to need Gibson if they want to even up the series and send it back to Cleveland for a decisive Game 7 on Sunday.
"I didn't say anything to him," Gibson said. "I didn't overreact. This is basketball. We can't fight. I don't know why guys always take it to that kind of fuss like we're going to do something. I just tried to pull my leg back, and when you're on TV everything always looks different. I just try to play basketball. I'm just frustrated I couldn't finish the game."
James called the second-year Dellavedova, listed generously at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, "probably our toughest guy." Dellavedova seemed nonplussed by the incident, saying, "I mean, nothing is going to happen. We're playing basketball."
This wasn't the first time in the series Dellavedova got under the Bulls' skin. There was a sequence in the second half of Game 3 when Gibson, Butler and Brooks all pushed Dellavedova, with Brooks picking up a technical foul.
A handful of Bulls and Cavs players tangled up in a brief fracas, during which Brooks pushed J.R. Smith in the back, but the only discipline administered after the review was Gibson's ejection.
Dellavedova said he hadn't seen the replay so wouldn't comment on Gibson's intention, but several of his Cavs teammates were quick to criticize it.
"It was a dirty play," said Smith. "Delly plays hard; he's not going to try to hurt anybody. But that was a dirty play. I know a little thing about dirty plays, so, it was a bad play. [The referees] made the right decision [to eject Gibson] ... There's just certain things you just don't do."
Tristan Thompson suggested the decision to suspend Gibson for Game 6 will now be "in the hands of the league," adding, "we're not going to let guys come around here and hit us or kick us. We don't tolerate that ... We don't play that. We play basketball. We don't play that."
Added James: "Anyone who starts something with Delly, seriously? Delly doesn't bother anybody. He doesn't even bother himself so how can he bother somebody else?"
Cleveland has won two straight in the series to take a 3-2 lead.