If you can't beat 'em, then beat 'em up?
Nobody would dare suggest the proud Bulls are officially adopting that desperate, dark-alley philosophy and putting it to use against the Heat and specifically, LeBron James, the Most Valuable Piñata. It wouldn't give the Bulls their proper due for being survivors to this point, for their grit and their heads-up play in tight moments, and for doing the little things that matter. You don't reach the second round by being complete hacks, looking for blood by drawing a bit of it.
Even LeBron said: "It's been some hard play, physical play. Dirty? No."
But there's no denying the Bulls are pushing their physical play to the legal limit, partly to compensate for missing players who can't be totally replaced, partly because it's the only way they can make this playoff series close. They lack the manpower to beat Miami four times, which isn't exactly a news bulletin. Once you realize there's a sense of urgency for a team without three starters, including the 2011 MVP, then it becomes understandable, even expected, that they'd resort to this. They'll do anything it takes to keep the game on their terms and LeBron's head on a swivel, wondering where the next love tap is coming from.
You ask them about it, and they'll fall back on the universally accepted explanation: That's playoff basketball.
They can call it whatever they want. It won't work against LeBron. His history and temperament show that it hasn't worked before and won't work now.
"I'm here to play basketball," he said.
That's not to say he doesn't notice the blows coming and feel them when they pound against his flesh. He may whine and plead his case to the refs and take gentle issue after the game about getting hit after the whistle on occasion. But he won't unravel. He won't self-destruct from it. He will not, under any circumstances, respond in a way that'll get him tossed. LeBron may be many things, and not all of them are complementary, but a fool isn't one of them. He doesn't get suckered easily.
The next time he becomes undone and takes a swing or gives someone a hard shove or swift kick in retaliation and earns an ejection or suspension will be the first.
"I haven't been in a situation like that before," James said, after Nazr Mohammed shoved him to the floor in Game 3. "My mind, I'm too cool. My mind is in another place to get involved. I'm not even going there."
The Bulls took this same approach earlier this season when they turned physical with LeBron in the game that stopped the Miami win streak at 27, and again in a handful of spots in this series. With the exception of Mohammed's mindless swipe across LeBron's arms at midcourt that led to the push, which isn't what you usually see in that situation, most of the plays have been hard fouls, nothing more sinister than that. But they've been hard and firm. And done purposely. And executed with the intent of stopping LeBron and jarring him from his comfort zone, hoping to tap into a coward vein if he has one.
LeBron is being tested. This was bound to happen, if not by the Bulls, then some other team. What else can you do against the man, besides hope he falls into a self-inflicted rut? Even though he hasn't played high-level basketball throughout this series -- maybe for about three quarters, total -- he fits the definition of being the head of the snake. So teams are aiming at him. LeBron is on a historic roll, with four MVPs in five years, and he's becoming tougher to guard every year. Partly out of frustration and desperation, and partly because nobody has found a fool-proof way of defending him yet, making him see stars is suddenly in vogue. And when you can do that under the cover of "playoff basketball" then nobody will see anything wrong with it. The "no layup" rule is enforced repeatedly, and it's suddenly acceptable and sometimes even embraced.
Also, consider how LeBron's game has evolved. He's attacking the rim more often and almost inviting more contact. He's making himself a target and certainly won't get anywhere near the level of sympathy a smaller and lesser player would get.
The Bulls, of all teams, should be very familiar with this tactic. They were targets once, two decades ago when the Pistons and a few others sharpened their elbows for Michael Jordan. When guarding Jordan straight-up became nearly impossible, and double-coverage didn't work much, teams began to chop away, sneakily so. The goal was to unnerve Jordan and turn him timid, find out if he lacked toughness and a soul.
In 1989 Jordan turned to Tim Grover, a local trainer, and took to lifting weights, something he avoided until he realized he needed the extra strength and muscle to deal with the hits. Soon after, the Bulls, after taking their lumps from the Pistons, overtook Detroit in the East and the championships began rolling in.
There's an obvious difference between Jordan and LeBron: One of them is 6-8 and goes a hard 250. Unlike Jordan, LeBron has never needed to swell up suddenly. He's built to absorb and deal with the punishment he's now getting, almost nightly.
And anyway, according to Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, when push came to a shove in Game 3, LeBron flopped. So there's that, the perception that LeBron and his teammates are "Hollywood," to use a Joakim Noah accusation, and crumble to the court quite easily and suspiciously.
That got a laugh from the Heat locker room.
"I don't spend a lot of time thinking about what Tom is saying," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "We've seen everything. None of this is new to us. Nobody can hide from the fact that the game will be decided between those four lines. And our guys understand that. Our guys are here to win a basketball game and a series."
LeBron and the Heat had every reason to expect a tough, physical series with the Bulls. All good defensive teams push the envelope. Noah and Taj Gibson are the leaders in that regard because they're high energy players who invite contact. Under Thibodeau, the Bulls have made defense the priority. And a significantly short-handed Bulls team really has no choice. They must shrink the court, slow the pace and battle every possession. If they see LeBron, and a chance to make him wince and think twice about rumbling through the lane, they'll take it. Gladly.
It's not who they are. It's what they've become. Here in a series that's threatening to turn lopsided, a series that no longer is waiting for Derrick Rose to rush to the rescue, the Bulls are merely doing what they can to survive. Hurt and damaged and strutting with a limp, they'll keep coming at Miami, elbows and forearms leading the way. Playoff basketball. That's what the Bulls are playing.
And when they decide to target the game's greatest and most self-controlled player, someone who just won't fight back and level the playing field by getting ejected or suspended, the Bulls are also playing something else:
A losing game.
"When you're comfortable with who you are as a player," LeBron said, "nothing bothers you."