Miami Heat forward LeBron James knew Wednesday night's game against the Bulls was going to be a boxing match. With 36 career games against Chicago, James understood that, even with center Joakim Noah out of the lineup, the Bulls wouldn't be backing down from anything or anyone, especially at home.
And while head coach Erik Spoelstra echoed those warnings about the Bulls' "sheer physicality," the Heat weren't able to match the hard style of play the Bulls instilled in Miami's 101-97 loss.
Point guard Kirk Hinrich set the tone late in the first quarter, grabbing James with both hands on a fast break that sent both players tumbling to the floor. James was awarded his third and fourth free throws of the night--he hit both--but he took exception to the play, calling it after the game a non-basketball play that may have warranted a second look by referees.
And if Hinrich was sending a message for the rest of the game, Taj Gibson's foul on James late in the fourth quarter--with the Bulls holding a 90-81 lead inside four minutes--was one to send the Heat back home to Miami.
As a clearly frustrated James drove to the basket, Gibson was waiting to greet him with a hard, but legal, foul that sent James sprawling to the floor. The referees did take a second look at the play, but no further punishment was given to Gibson.
"Those are not basketball plays and it’s been happening all year," James said after the game, in reference to the two hard fouls. "And I was able to keep my cool and try to spell [Spoelstra], 'Let’s not worry about it too much.' But it is getting to me.
It didn't take long after Gibson's hard foul for James to lose his cool. Hinrich brought the ball up the court on the very next possession, and James lowered a shoulder into Carlos Boozer--who had come to set a ball-screen for Hinrich--that the referees deemed a flagrant foul.
"Every time I try to defend myself I gotta face the consequences, whatever it may be," James continued. "It’s tough, and I’m not sitting here crying about anything, because I play the game at a high level, I play with a lot of aggression and I understand that some of the plays are on the borderline of a basketball play or not."
The combination of James' 6-foot-8, 270-pound frame combined with his lightning quick speed in transition and going to the basket has made him a near-impossible cover. In many cases, a defender's only option is to hold on and go for a ride with James in order to not allow him to blow right by.
That, teammate Shane Battier said, is what makes him such a tough player to officiate.
"He puts so much pressure on the rim and the teams. "The way I’ve been explained [what a foul is] is: It’s balance, speed, rhythm, quickness. And a foul is when balance, speed, rhythm or quickness is disrupted," he said. "I do think defenders get more benefit of the doubt against him than the rules dictate."
Whether or not Spoelstra cared for the two non-flagrant calls against the Bulls or was just attempting to keep the NBA out of his wallet, his response to the Bulls' physical style of play was curt: "Welcome to Chicago and Miami basketball."