CHICAGO – Everything changed on the March night LeBron James had come to the United Center and declared these Chicago Bulls a dirty basketball team. The world's best basketball player insisted that Chicago's hard fouls were "not basketball plays," that the Bulls had crossed into troubling territory.
Of course, the Bulls believed James had used his bully pulpit to influence the way the NBA officiated him. James' greatness promised a closer inspection out of the league and its officials, a strategic understanding that the world would judge harshly the way these Bulls imposed physicality on the four-time Most Valuable Player.
When everyone else watched Chicago's Nazr Mohammed make a run at James, shove him tumbling onto his back on Friday night, the Bulls witnessed something else: confirmation of a conspiracy. Mohammed earned the ejection, and the rest of these Bulls earned the indignation and outrage that they need for public retaliation.
"We're well aware of what's going on," Thibodeau seethed late Friday. "I'm watching how things are going. I watch very closely. What I'm seeing is…
"…We'll adjust accordingly."
Running out of players, running out of time, Thibodeau will never let these Bulls run out of conspiracies to frame in these Eastern Conference semifinals. The Heat beat the Bulls 104-94 in Game 3 and finally took a 2-1 series lead.
No one pitches "we're getting bleeped" better than Thibs, no one better sells it to his players in a neatly wrapped, pretty bow package of damning disgust. His message is unmistakable and his locker room is fully invested in the brainwashing: The NBA wants us to go away, wants us to leave LeBron James undaunted and unharmed on the way to consecutive championship coronations.
"We're not going to get calls," Thibodeau grumbled. "That's reality."
That's the reality in his parallel universe, where Thibs' post-game diatribe likely promises to inspire a substantial fine from the NBA office. For him, it will be money well-invested to counter consecutive defeats where the Bulls lost composure, lost tempers and ultimately lost playoff games.
Here, Thibodeau needs these depleted Bulls to push further and further into a hard-hitting basketball place. The Bulls want the Heat to lose their minds and lose their way. For a moment, Mohammed did get James to retaliate. For a moment, it had worked beautifully on Friday night – until Mohammed trumped James' tech with an ejection.
Before Mohammed was ejected in the second quarter, 40 feet from the basket, he wrapped up James on a fast break. As Mohammed grabbed him, James ripped free of him and whipped the Bulls center to the floor. As the official was whistling the technical foul on James, Mohammad never noticed. Beyond livid, he leaped to his feet and made a run at James, pushing him backward and ultimately onto his butt.
"I do believe it warranted a tech," Mohammed said. "We've had guys jumping on Nate's face, guys backing up Marco Belinelli out of bounds. There's been a lot of plays that didn't get ejections.
"A push shouldn't get an ejection. …It was a cheap shot throwing me down."
Nate Robinson told Yahoo! Sports, "You see LeBron in a lot of commercials, a lot of good acting."
And Thibodeau flatly said, "From my angle, I just saw a guy flop."
Until the final minutes of the fourth quarter, the Heat couldn't free themselves of the Bulls' death grip. The Bulls are relentless in their resolve to hang around, muck up these games and find a way to steal them. They don't have the players to compete with the Heat – only the resourcefulness.
Most of all, Thibodeau needs to create a climate of havoc and hysteria. He keeps telling his players that they have "more than enough" to beat Miami, and somehow they stare at Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich in suits and still believe him.
Chicago holds pure hatred in its heart for the Heat, and sometimes Miami must grudgingly match it.
"We really dislike each other," Taj Gibson said. "And it shows on the court."
When the two teams walked out for the Game 3 opening tip, something happened that you almost never see in the NBA: no fist bumps, no handshakes, no phony half-hugs. Nothing.
"It was worse than that when LeBron got the MVP," Gibson told Y! Sports. "You didn't see any of us clap."
They don't come to celebrate James' talent, but make him feel the wrath of that suffocating defense, those beat-up bodies unafraid to crash into the Heat. When it was over, the Bulls spoke longingly of a different time in the NBA, a different era, when they would've been allowed to get away with taking a run at LeBron James.
"M.J. would get fouled and he would just keep playing," Gibson told Y! Sports. "That's old-school basketball."
Whatever it used to be, it's something else now. Back on the night Chicago stopped the Heat's 27-game winning streak, James understood these Bulls would ultimately stand between him and his third straight NBA Finals. He understood the conversation needed to be changed, that the examination needed to be thrust upon the devices of these Bulls.
Ever since, Thibodeau and the Bulls are fighting to the impossible fight, fighting the changing times and a changed NBA. No more runs at the world's greatest player, no room for interpretation that the strongest man in basketball could've flopped when pushed back on his heels.
"I'm on my way out of this league," Mohammed said. "And it's his league now."
This was Tom Thibodeau's rage on Friday, the parallel universe where the NBA is conspiring to stop the Bulls and somehow, someway, he's still selling his team on the improbable belief that fate had wronged them. The coach of these Chicago Bulls is running out of players, running of time, and yet he's still selling solidarity of a locker room that believes it can make life a living hell for LeBron James until he's finally disposed of them.
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