MIAMI — Maybe the Heat practicing in football pads Monday had a subliminal effect on the referees in the Bulls’ season-opening loss Tuesday night at American Airlines Arena.
The final tally of fouls — 27 for the Bulls, 21 for the Heat — wasn’t reflective of early on in the contest, when it certainly appeared that the Bulls were at a disadvantage because of their trademark physical style of play. In particular, starting wings Jimmy Butler and All-Star small forward Luol Deng were hampered by foul trouble, as Butler picked up two quick fouls in the early going, while Deng accrued three of his own — followed by Butler acquiring his own third early in the second period — to sideline the Bulls’ two primary defenders of the Heat superstar tandem of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
“Next question,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, forcing a smile, responded when asked about his team’s foul difficulties.
Later, the coach took the bait when asked how Deng’s absence affected the game for the Bulls, who were keeping up with and even led the defending champions when the league’s back-to-back minutes-per-game leader had to take a seat on the bench.
“The problem with [Deng’s foul trouble] was also coupled with Jimmy being off. Jimmy was able to get going a little bit because of his ability to make steals. He got into the open floor. Luol was out of rhythm because of being on the bench. You have to have the ability to work through it. That’s something we can do a lot better,” Thibodeau explained. “I thought the big thing was the foul trouble for Luol and Jimmy. You’re talking about two primary defensive players.”
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Indeed, Butler found a way to get it going in the second half, when the Bulls trimmed what was a 25-point lead to a single-digit game in the fourth quarter, using his ability to turn Heat turnovers into transition baskets, en route to 20 points and five steals on the night. Deng, on the other hand, struggled all evening, scoring only four points on 2-for-8 shooting after doing a solid job limiting James defensively in the early part of the game.
“Me and Jimmy can’t sit out, especially against this team,” Deng explained. “They got too many guys on the wing. It was a tough game to get a rhythm.”
Butler chimed in: “Frustrating.
“I know I let it alter my game. I’m an aggressive defender. Whenever I hear a whistle call and some fouls I don’t think are fouls, I start changing on offense and defense. I feel like I can’t foul,” he said. “That’s not the only reason; don’t get me wrong. We’re two of the best perimeter defenders on this team. When we’re not out there controlling the likes of LeBron or D-Wade, I feel like they gain confidence.
“Lu can make shots, distribute, rebound and guard. He does so much for this team, it’s tough. We don’t have really another Lu. He does so many great things for this team. When he’s not out there, it’s like a hole that’s missing.”
Deng elaborated about his foul trouble — two of his four fouls were on the offensive end, perhaps a product of having to handle the ball more as the Heat trapped point guard Derrick Rose to force the ball out of his hands — telling reporters how it changed his approach.
“It was something new. I didn’t do a good job of handling it. I had no rhythm. I wasn’t as aggressive as I wanted to be after that, kind of watching my fouls,” he said. “I just really felt my foul trouble affected us in the second quarter. Normally I play with the second unit. That second quarter was awful on our part.
“I have to look at that fourth foul. But I really thought I just posted up. I didn’t even see him in order to hit him,” Deng continued. “[The official] admitted that he missed my first foul. You can’t take it back.”