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Bulls try to get tough, but it won't fly when Heat can stay above fray

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CHICAGO -- Nazr Mohammed was in the locker room alone, watching one of the only plays anyone will remember from this playoff game between the Heat and Bulls. He had to watch it for two reasons.

First, he couldn’t remember what he’d actually done to LeBron James that got him ejected from Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Friday night. And second, he was relieved that’s all he did.

“I’m just so happy I didn’t do anything else, that I just pushed him,” Mohammed said.

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The play that got Mohammed ejected from the Bulls’ 104-94 loss to Miami represented the collision of so much in basketball. A collision of eras. A contrast in statures. A reminder of words spoken by James in this very building six weeks ago. The Heat’s 27-game winning streak had no sooner ended on March 27 in Chicago when James put the NBA’s toughness police on notice by calling out the Bulls for what he referred to as “not basketball plays.”

Those words had resonated all the way to May, all the way to Game 3 of the conference semifinals against a Bulls team that lacks Derrick Rose but lacks none of the championship fight and character that this Tom Thibodeau-coached team has displayed in incalculable amounts under the circumstances.

“We’ve got a bunch of fighters right now,” said Taj Gibson, whose foul-mouthed exit from Game 2 in Miami resulted in the usual token fine from a league that has a product to sell.

In Game 3, the Bulls fought. The Heat pretty much didn’t. James stayed above -- and mostly out of -- the fray. If his 25 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and two steals seemed effortless, they were. James and the Heat were on cruise control for a good 40 minutes of Game 3, never really answering any of the intensity and fight that Thibodeau’s Bulls had brought to the building -- and, given the Bulls’ depleted state, not needing to.

“They were disengaged at times, and they were physical at times,” Gibson said. “It went back and forth.”

Everyone in the arena and beyond knew the eyes of the officials and their suited-up supervisors back in New York would be on every elbow -- every flare-up -- after the nine technicals and two ejections that had spilled out of the fury of Game 2. That is not the product the NBA is selling anymore -- not the product that was the norm when Mohammed came into the league 15 years ago.

“It’s a different league,” Mohammed said. “I see a lot of things that I didn’t see years ago. That’s the way I was taught to play ball. … You checked people cutting to the rim, you didn’t give away layups, fastbreaks or dunks. You didn’t try to hurt people, but at the same time, you have to earn the two points.”

As Gibson complained about not getting a foul called at the offensive end early in the second quarter, Mohammed chased down James across the halfcourt line and wrapped him up for what he called a “soft” foul to stop the break. James took exception and tossed Mohammed to the ground -- the most aggression he showed all night.

Referee Joey Crawford whistled James for a technical foul, something Mohammed said he didn’t know when he got up and pushed James to the floor. Mohammed caught James in the chest as the MVP was looking around and protesting his tech and saying, “Me?” Whether Mohammed was strong enough to send James sprawling 10 feet across the court, well, Thibodeau left nothing to the imagination.

“From my angle,” Thibodeau said, “I just saw a guy flop.”

Frankly, the most amazing part of the play was that James was able to think on his feet fast enough to make sure he landed on his derriere and slid across the floor as far as he did. Nate Robinson said it was like James’ TV commercials: “A lot of good acting.”

This is where a healthy, old-school dislike between these teams -- something rarely on display anymore -- boiled over. It is what the Heat had with the Celtics, what Chicago native Isiah Thomas’ Pistons had with Michael Jordan’s Bulls.

“Both of these teams, we really go at each other,” Gibson said. “We really dislike each other and it shows on the court the way we play.” There are never any handshakes after the game. When the Bulls and Heat play, there aren’t any before the game, either.

“It was worse than that when LeBron got MVP,” Gibson said. “You didn’t even see any of us clap.”

In a 2-1 hole now, the Bulls won’t win this series. But they won’t genuflect to LeBron, either -- no matter how much Mohammed realized afterward who he was and who he was putting his hands on.

“I’m on my way out this league,” Mohammed said, “and it’s his league.”

Mohammed was drafted in 1998, has bounced from team to team and has never averaged 10 points per game in any of his 15 seasons. Like the rough-and-tumble confrontations of playoffs past, Nazr Mohammed is not the product the NBA is selling.

“I’m sitting back here looking at the play and I’m just disappointed,” Mohammed said. “I wanted to be out there so bad. I wanted to help my teammates win the game, and to be back here watching over something like a push … I’m disappointed I let somebody else cause a reaction like that when I knew there was going to be so much of a microscope on the game and the physicality.”

His disappointment was genuine, but it was not strictly self-directed.

“I’m disappointed because my son was probably watching the game, and I don’t want him to see that type of behavior on the court,” Mohammed said. “But I’m also disappointed that it warranted an ejection for something like a push when I got pushed down first.”

It was Mohammed, the journeyman, garden-variety NBA center, pushing the MVP -- putting his hands on the King. And it isn’t tolerated in a league that’s changed so much -- mostly for the better -- since Mohammed came on the scene in the late ‘90s. It specifically wasn’t going to be tolerated in this series, in this game, because of the history -- the residue of Game 2 and the resonance of James’ comments about the Bulls’ bullying tactics back in March.

“When arguably one of the best players in the league says [they’re] not basketball plays, you’d be wise to kind of look at those plays and look at what he’s talking about,” Mohammed said. “He’s the face of our league. So no, I’m not surprised it put the focus on him, but there’s nothing you can do about that.”

There’s nothing more the Bulls can do; they can’t beat Miami without Rose and with such a severe talent deficit in a sport that caters to talent over toughness now.

“We’re not going to get calls,” Gibson said. “We understand that.”

But at some point in these playoffs, the Heat are going to have to hit back. Against the Knicks or Pacers in the next round, whichever team emerges from a series that is only getting started, the Heat are going to have to respond with some aggression of their own.

They’re going to have to give someone else a taste of the Bulls’ medicine, whether they like it or not.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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