“Nah,” Joakim Noah answered. “I don’t think so.”
Immediately following that response — to a question about whether LeBron James’ comments about the physical nature of the Bulls, after they snapped the Heat’s 27-game winning streak during the regular season — the All-Star center gave an exaggerated eye roll.
The Bulls didn’t completely keep their cool in Friday night’s 104-94 Game 3 loss to the Heat at the United Center, but it was certainly an improvement from their six-technical Game 2 debacle in Miami.
[More: Heat push back, take 2-1 series lead over Bulls]
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau cut his teeth in the NBA back in the rough-and-tumble 1990s, first gaining prominence as an assistant coach with the New York Knicks under Jeff Van Gundy, a team known for its physical play.
Thibodeau is equipped with a team that either shares or has adopted his blue-collar philosophy, but in today’s NBA, the trend is going the other way, making the Bulls’ brand of basketball seem over the top when framed in a certain light and turning his press conferences into a forum for a conspiracy theorist, if you didn’t know any better.
Here’s a sample: “No. No. No. I’m watching how things are going. I see how things are going. I watch very closely. Watch very closely and what I’m seeing, we’ll adjust accordingly.”
“We’re well aware of what’s going on,” he said, making a veiled reference to the notion that the Heat are getting more calls than the Bulls. “And when you play this team, you’ve got 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 figure out a way to get it done. And we can.
“You,” the coach went on to say, indicating that he doesn’t get much feedback from the officials. “I’ll let you ask them.”
But even if Thibodeau is correct and the referees, the league, the Heat and whatever other powers-that-be exist are all in cahoots against his undermanned team, the Bulls have to adjust.
From Noah’s first-quarter technical foul — attempting to help up teammate Nate Robinson, he got tangled up with Miami instigator Chris “Birdman” Andersen, who had fouled Robinson on the play — to backup center Nazr Mohammed’s ejection after shoving James to the floor, in retaliation for James throwing him to the ground, the Bulls are too often fighting back, instead of striking the first blow.
[Watch: Mohammed "disappointed" in ejection]
Robinson evaluated it this way: “It’s the way our league is now, man. It’s not like back in the day, when Isiah Thomas and guys damn near had fights back in the day, and nobody got kicked out. But we’ve just got to play through it and compete. If we’re doing that, we’ve just got to find a way to win.”
When asked how the Bulls could maintain their trademark style of play while avoiding the incidents that have marked the last two games of the series, perhaps Noah — who quipped, “Joey Crawford, he doesn’t play that,” regarding the popular game official, who is known for controlling the tenor of big games — summed it up the best.
“I really don’t know what to tell you. I don’t have an answer. I think we’ve just got to stay aggressive, but we’ve got to be smarter, I guess,” Noah said. “I think that we played hard, played with a lot of passion tonight. We played a solid game. It’s going to be a very, very, very competitive game on Monday.”
You see, it’s never going to be about pure strategy for these short-handed Bulls, just giving it their all, executing as best as they can, following the blueprint that’s got them this far. And if that isn’t good enough to top the most talented team in the league, then they’ll come back and try all over again, regardless of officiating or any other outside factors.
It’s all they know how to do.
One just wishes they played in a different era.