Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau harrumphed, then spit out his words in a cadence of a man who felt he’d been wronged.
“From my angle,” Thibodeau said. “I just saw a guy, basically flop.
“And I’m going to leave it at that.”
Thibodeau was talking about the second-quarter play that saw his backup center, Chicago native Nazr Mohammed, ejected for shoving league MVP LeBron James to the floor.
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James was pushing the ball in transition when he crossed paths with Mohammed, who, as is commonplace throughout the NBA, stopped the athletic freight train from even attempting to convert the fast break with a foul at a little past midcourt.
For whatever reason, the Heat superstar took exception to the contact, which didn’t seem excessive, and threw down the usually mild-mannered — if no-nonsense — veteran product of the South Side.
Mohammed responded by getting up and with a two-handed shove, pushing James, who fell to the ground as if he was the size of Nate Robinson, instead of only a little bit smaller than Mohammed.
James was hit with a technical foul, but the 35-year-old Mohammed was ejected and afterwards, while he was somewhat chastened, he was also adamant about his belief that the punishment didn’t fit the crime.
“I don’t think it warranted an ejection. I do believe it warranted a tech. I mean, just give a foul so a guy doesn’t start a break. He pushes you, throws you down, sometimes instincts take over. But that definitely doesn’t warrant an ejection,” Mohammed explained. “Guy’s going on a steal on the break. You want to stop the break. I tried to stop the break, got tossed to the ground, got up, instinctively. I’m just so happy I didn’t do anything else. I just pushed. Because I can’t even recall — I had to come back in the locker room and watch it — because I couldn’t even recall what happened. Because I was kind of pissed that he pushed me to the ground. It was a soft foul. It wasn’t like I fouled him hard. You expect that when you foul a guy hard. You expect him to give you a little extra, but not on a soft, stop-the-break type foul.
“It was one of those things that happened so fast, you don’t anticipate, you don’t know what’s going to happen, but instincts kind of kick in. When a guy pushes you down, instinctively, I’m going to get up and do something. Sometimes you have to fight your instincts and do what’s right. I’m disappointed that I didn’t fight my instincts well enough tonight because I could have probably helped the team,” he continued. “I look at some of the plays that happened on this series already. Guys jumping on Nate’s face, guys tackle Marco Belinelli out of bounds, guy takes out Nate first play of the game. I mean, there’s been a lot of plays that didn’t get ejections and a push shouldn’t get an ejection.
“I’m disappointed in myself because I let my teammates down. Definitely could have been out there to help. I’m disappointed in myself also because my son was probably watching the game. I don’t want him to see that type of behavior on the court, but I’m also disappointed that it warranted an ejection for something like a push. I got pushed down first.”
Thibodeau shared Mohammed’s stance and was clear in making his point that he thinks more egregious plays made by the Heat in the series are being comparatively ignored.
“I didn’t think it warranted an ejection. I understand a flagrant foul. I understand that, but an ejection, no. No. Nope,” the coach said. “Nazr’s a big part of our team in that he gives Jo a rest, so we had to extend Jo’s minutes. He’s a big part of the rebounding, offensive rebounding. He hasn’t done anything but go out there and play hard. I’m watching some of the plays with Haslem and Andersen, and I don’t get it. I don’t get it.”
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While he claimed responsibility for his actions, Mohammed didn’t relish in the incident — unlike the crowd, which chanted the Kenwood Academy graduate’s name, more in derision for the shove’s recipient — but while he didn’t want to speculate, the fact that James was involved can’t be ignored when considering the action taken by the referees.
“I’m not going to get into that. Who knows? That’s for you guys to write about and it’s not for me. I’m on my way out of this league and it’s his league, so you guys make the decision,” Mohammed said. “It’s a different league from when I got into the league, so I see a lot of things that I didn’t see years ago. So I was surprised, but it doesn’t amaze me.
“No, I didn’t anticipate. Just hindsight, looking back and also, I know myself. You guys who have been around me know me. I’m not a dirty player. I’m not an instigator. I’m out there playing hard, physical basketball, the way I was taught when I came into this league,” he went on to say. “I didn’t even realize [that James was given a technical foul] until I got back to the locker room and saw the replay, and probably if I had saw the tech, maybe that would have stopped me. I don’t know. It just kind of happened. But I’m real disappointed in myself. I had a lot of time back here to think about it and think about what went wrong, and I’m disappointed that I got kicked out, but I don’t think I should have got kicked out for pushing a guy.”
Robinson supported Mohammed, but the talkative scorer wouldn’t bite when asked for his opinion about James’ involvement leading to his teammate being kicked out.
“Who knows, man? That’s our superstar of the league, so there you have it,” he said. “I don’t know. I can’t pinpoint it, I can’t put my thumb on it, but we’re not worried about what the refs say or what they say. We’ve just got to continue to play Chicago basketball, which is hard, gritty and together.
“Naz is a quiet guy,” he added. “My uncle and my father always told me the quiet ones are who you’ve got to worry about, so I wouldn’t put it past Naz to move him out. Naz is a great guy, man, and sometimes, guys get frustrated."
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Jimmy Butler chimed in: “I don’t think it was too much of a dirty play. He just got a little hot-headed. Naz isn’t that type of guy at all, but it happened.”
Mohammed comes from the old school, so he doesn’t see what the big deal was in general, as he isn’t overly caught up in the Bulls-Heat rivalry, nor does he believe that the game was anything close to out of control.
“It’s playoff basketball. I’m going to dislike everybody on their team during the playoffs. I might see the same guys in the summer, they’re cool with me. I’ve got a good friend over in that locker room. It’s instinctive. You can’t push a guy down and expect nothing to happen. Our league has changed in that aspect. I was wrong to get kicked out, but at the same time, I’m surprised that I got kicked out for pushing,” he said. “You know what, it’s funny. With me, I don’t think it’s been that physical. You get three physical, four physical plays in a 48-minute game, that doesn’t warrant it being that physical. That’s the way I was taught to play ball when I came into this league. You hit people cutting to the rim. You didn’t give away layups, fast break or dunks. You didn’t try to hurt people. But at the same time, you just made them earn it from the line or just have to earn the two points. So I don’t think it’s been that physical. It’s been playoff basketball.”
“Oh, I doubt it. I don’t think so. But you know, it’s out of my hands. It’s up to the league to decide. But I’m surprised I got kicked out for a push, so I’ll be shocked if anything else happened,” he continued, when asked if he thought he’d be disciplined by the NBA — which recently fined teammate Taj Gibson $25,000 for verbal abuse of official Scott Foster in Game 2 — for the incident. “They won the game, it’s over. I have no ill will towards anybody over there, but it’s my character flaw. If I’m pushed again, I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same thing. I hope I don’t and I’m going to try not to and keep my cool, but I can’t really say if the same thing happened again that I wouldn’t push him again.”