MIAMI—Maybe Tom Thibodeau tricked his players and even himself into believing that Sunday afternoon’s matchup with the Heat wouldn’t be closely scrutinized by the game’s referees, but in his heart of hearts, the Bulls head coach knew what would happen.
After his team ended Miami’s 27-game winning streak, in large part due to their physical nature, reigning league MVP LeBron James’ comments about the Bulls’ defense not only earned Taj Gibson an upgraded flagrant foul after the fact, but affected the two teams’ next meeting, the season-series finale.
Now, fouls alone weren't why the Bulls fell 105-93 at the American Airlines Arena—being short-handed, once again, also played a role, as did 35.4 percent field-goal shooting and allowing Miami to shoot a relatively gaudy 51.4 percent from the field—but from the outset of the game, it was clear that the visitors fell victim to a quick whistle on several occasions.
“I don’t want our guys to worry about that stuff. We have to play our game. Play defense. Concentrate on body position. Hey look, sometimes the calls go your way. Sometimes they don’t. That’s part of the game. It can’t affect the way you play. You have to play the same way. The early fouls on some guys took away some of the aggressiveness. We can’t do that. We have to keep playing hard. For us, it’s about the intensity,” Thibodeau said of the perceived increased scrutiny on his team.
“I told them, ‘It was a winnable game for us. You’re going to get into situations where you’re on the road, they’re a great team and get credit. They got a lot of calls that went their way. That was to be expected. It was still a winnable game down the stretch.’
“We had a couple tough plays where we had poor body position. Even in the fourth quarter, we were right there. We have to come up with stops. I thought it was too easy for most of the game. I liked the way we bounced back. We were in a hole and cut it two at the half. It’s the way it goes. We took a lot of 3s. We got to the line 31 times ourselves. I thought the foul trouble hurt us.”
Up and down the Bulls’ active roster—they were without Derrick Rose, All-Star Joakim Noah and top reserve Taj Gibson, as well as Rip Hamilton, who was serving a one-game suspension—players got into foul trouble, from Carlos Boozer and Jimmy Butler early on, to even subs like Nazr Mohammed and Daequan Cook.
Floor general Kirk Hinrich, who got into serious foul trouble of his own in the second half, refused to blame the referees and instead put the onus on the Bulls’ defense.
“We kind of expected it would be a pretty tight whistle early. You just have to play. We just didn’t play well enough defensively. We’re still searching to get back to what we do best. We just didn’t do a good job of holding teams,” said Hinrich, who shifted into a more aggressive scoring mode, as opposed to his usual preference of ball distribution as a first, second and third option. “We have to hold teams to a lower field goal percentage. Obviously it’s a tough task against these guys, but we’ve got another one [Monday],” he said. “We’re trying to do the best we can, officials are trying to do the best they can. I don’t know if there’s anything extra into it or not.”
By “anything extra,” Hinrich was referring to the aforementioned theory of James’ assertions about the Bulls influencing the league and thus, the officials, to watch the Bulls closer and not necessarily give them the benefit of the doubt.
Backup point guard Nate Robinson quipped: “If he has that much power, more power to him.”
“It happens, man. Some days the referees are going to call it one way, some days they call it another. The referees aren't perfect. They do a hell of a job out there. They can’t see everything,” continued Robinson, whose 10-point individual spurt to close the first half brought the Bulls to within two points at the break. “For us, we’re an aggressive defensive team. We do a lot of things. We trap, we hedge, we couldn't be ourselves [Sunday]. At the same time, you've got to adjust. We tried and they were just on top of it, I guess.’’
After a first quarter in which the Bulls were whistled for nine fouls and the Heat shot 15 free throws—in contrast to six and five, respectively, going the other way—things began to somewhat even out for the remainder of the contest, but the tone had already been set.
But what’s done is done and regardless of whether there was a predisposition to be less judicious to the Bulls because of their reputation or even the words of a superstar, they are still in the midst of a battle for playoff positioning—they entered Sunday in sixth place, one game behind Atlanta—with two regular-season games remaining.
“I don’t know, we just didn’t win. That’s one thing I do know. As a team, we’re getting better. We’ve got two games left. We need these games starting [Monday] with Orlando. Collectively, as a whole, we’re playing with great energy. We just need to do a better job defensively and I think we’ll be OK,” Robinson said.
"We’ve been fighting all season, fighting the injury bug. The guys we got out there that we have playing, they give it their all. That’s something we’ve been doing this whole season, try and do the little things and stay strong. I think we did a great job. [Sunday] was kind of tough, but that’s one of the best teams in the NBA right now, so we’ve just got to go back to the drawing board and figure out what we have to do better as a team.”