Bulls-Heat landing in the rough
The Miami Heat gain upper hand in physical win over the East's leaders
MIAMI -- What was there to gain?
An improved chance at, or in Chicago's case an official grasp of, the No. 1 seed in the East?
Depending on your perspective, neither of these teams should even want that top spot. Sure, the New York Knicks would be a challenging first-round opponent for the team that finishes second, but wouldn't it mean more to avoid a second-round matchup with the surging Boston Celtics, which the No. 1 seed would potentially face?
A statement win?
The Chicago Bulls have already beaten the Miami Heat with and without Derrick Rose. And if the Heat wanted a statement win so badly, Chris Bosh wouldn't have been given the night off with "bumps and bruises."
No, that's not what was truly up for grabs in this final regular-season meeting between the two Eastern Conference powers. Leverage, however, was there for the taking.
The type of leverage you get with a double forearm shiver, or a forceful shove, or a teeth-rattling, where-did-he-come-from screen in the backcourt.
The type of leverage that lets the opposition know exactly what to expect should the playoffs bring another round of contentious games.
The Heat left this potential Eastern Conference finals preview with an edge. Not because of the W. But strictly because they reminded the Bulls that the old "Hollywood as hell" image no longer defines this team.
Of course, it was Bulls center Joakim Noah who dropped that memorable line about the Heat last season, which actually was followed up with a compliment for the Heat.
So it's almost fitting that Noah was the first victim of three signature physical, borderline-dirty plays from the Heat on Thursday night. James Jones was ejected midway through the second quarter for blindsiding Noah with a double forearm near the neck area.
It was deemed a flagrant-2, though a subdued Noah later called it a part of the game.
It was certainly part of the Heat's game on this night.
Not that the plan was to intentionally commit flagrant penalties. But against a team known for its toughness and rebounding, and against a team that already has the height advantage in the frontcourt, the Heat figured they had to gauge just how physical they'd have to be to overcome that.
They'd have to beat the Bulls at their own game. And if that also meant leaving a lasting memory in the minds of Bulls players -- well, that's just a bonus.
"We never go out with a goal and say we want to be more physical," Dwyane Wade said. "We have to be a physical team to win a championship because teams are going to try to say, 'Listen, we can be tougher than them.'
"So we have to get into the fight."
Wade got into the fight. School-yard style.
When Richard Hamilton grazed him with an elbow, Wade responded with a one-arm shove that knocked Hamilton off his feet and out of bounds.
It was no subtle move. It was blatant and purposeful.
In the case of Wade, who earned a flagrant-1 for the shove, it was a career's worth of aggravation with Hamilton coming out in one fluid motion.
"It wasn't that one single elbow. It was a few," Wade said "It was an accumulation [over the years]. I love a competition, but it comes a point when you're getting hit a lot, and it's not seen. The only way you can bring attention to it is to bring attention to it.
"I knew that would bring attention to it and they would watch us really closely. Now you can see what's going on."
Wade's goal -- though it's doubtful he truly thought this through in the millisecond he decided to fire back at Hamilton -- was to make sure Hamilton doesn't get away with some of his tactics in the postseason.
Will it work? Who knows. But you can bet that altercation will be shown hundreds of times before these two teams meet in a playoff series. So if it brings attention to their matchup, then Wade gets what he wants.
LeBron James' intentions weren't so involved.
He just wanted to take some pressure off his point guard, who was being hounded in the backcourt, as Bulls point guards tend to do. So James stepped in and set a hard screen on John Lucas. The same John Lucas whom LeBron leaped over to catch and finish an alley-oop dunk the last time these teams met in Miami. But Lucas must have found this more embarrassing. So he sprung to his feet and tried to confront LeBron, creating little more than a huddle of angry players and stressed referees.
"A lot of guys try to pressure our point guards," James said. "That's not the first time I got somebody.
"I didn't think I did anything illegal. I just set a solid pick."
Some of the Bulls would beg to differ, but Lucas was nowhere to be found when the visiting locker room doors opened, and all Noah would offer on the play was, "It was cool."
None of it was cool with the Bulls, of course. None of it sat well -- not the physical play, not the five-rebound deficit, not the Heat's domination in the paint.
So while they can't exactly assume a conference finals rematch -- not when Rose's injuries remain a consistent nuisance -- the Bulls plan on having a response.
"There was a lot of stuff going on," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Lot of stuff going on. But that's to be expected because you're on the road and they're a good team.
"We're going to have to deal with that more effectively."
How his team deals with it down the road remains a mystery. When asked about it, Thibodeau paused, lowered his eyes and said, "We have to deal with it. We have to deal with it."
There it is. The leverage.
The Heat left the season with it, even if it took a few questionable plays to grab it.
And if we're all lucky, we'll get to see Chicago's counterpunch about five weeks from now.
Israel Gutierrez covers the NBA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter, @IzzyESPN.
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