MIAMI — If there’s a more heated rivalry in the NBA now than Heat-Bulls, name it.
Thursday night’s slugfest between the teams produced two flagrant fouls — one resulting in an ejection — and four individual technicals. It had Miami’s Dwyane Wade and Chicago’s Richard Hamilton going at it the way the two did when Hamilton played for Detroit in the hotly contested 2005 and 2006 Eastern Conference finals.
And when the Heat and Bulls next see each other, that also could be for the East crown.
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On paper, the 83-72 win at AmericanAirlines Arena keeps Miami (45-17) alive for the top seed in the East. But that would require the Bulls (47-16) to lose at least one of their final three games.
More importantly, Thursday’s game showed the Heat have no more plans to be pushed around by the allegedly more physical Bulls, who had beaten them two straight.
“It’s a great atmosphere,” said Heat forward LeBron James, who scored a game-high 27 points. “If you’re a competitor, that’s what it’s all about. You should live for these type of games when these two teams go at it. … It’s going to be very intense. It’s going to be very physical.”
The action really started to get heated midway through the second quarter, and it came from an unexpected source. Heat guard James Jones, who had never before been ejected in his nine-year career, used his forearms to plow into Chicago center Joakim Noah under the basket.
Jones was assessed a flagrant foul 2, which meant an automatic heave-ho. While Jones wasn’t available to comment on the play, Noah shrugged it off.
“He was just trying to keep me off the boards,” Noah said. “It’s a part of the game.”
It sure is when the Bulls and the Heat get together.
The next incident came early in the third quarter when Hamilton put an elbow and shoulder into Wade while being tightly guarded. Wade then went right back at Hamilton, only hitting him harder. Both got technicals, with Wade also receiving a flagrant foul 1.
“Detroit all over again,” said Wade, speaking about that chippy rivalry in which the Pistons won the Eastern Conference in 2005 and the Heat got revenge the next year. “(Hamilton) is one of those pesky defenders who can get away with a lot of stuff. I just took a foul. I’m not one of those players that does a lot of hitting and stuff like that. I know it just comes to a point you just get fed up with certain things, so I decided to bring a little bit more attention to us so (the officials) could pay a little bit more attention.”
As if the officials didn’t already have plenty on their plates. Late in the third quarter, while Heat guard Mario Chalmers was bringing the ball up, the 6-foot-8, 250-pound James set a Great Wall of China-like pick on Bulls guard John Lucas III, who is nine inches shorter and 85 pounds lighter.
Lucas went flying. Then, while Lucas tried to go at James, he was smartly held back by Bulls forward Taj Gibson. Both James and Lucas got technicals.
“I knew I had him,” James said. “A lot of guys try to pressure my point guards. So, it’s not the first time I’ve gotten somebody. I don’t think I did anything illegal. I just set a solid screen.”
Back on Jan. 29, James had turned Lucas into a human hurdle, jumping over him for one of the best dunks in the NBA this season. On Thursday, James made Lucas look like a crash-test dummy.
“There was a lot of stuff going on in the game, and that is to be expected,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, well aware of this growing rivalry.
Thursday, James had some mild cramping that sent him to the bench for a few minutes in the fourth quarter. But he scored 25 points in the first three quarters as the Heat took a 66-61 lead they would eventually extend. The loss prevented Chicago from clinching the East’s No. 1 seed and resulted in the season series finishing at 2-2.
The Bulls have three games left, two of them against East teams. If they lose one to an East foe and the Heat wins their final four games, Miami gets the No. 1 seed because of a better conference record. If that scenario has the one Chicago loss being to Dallas of the West, the tiebreaker would come down to the better record against East playoff foes. Miami then would be No. 1 unless Milwaukee can overcome a three-game deficit to top Philadelphia for the No. 8 seed.
Wade said the Heat “weren’t worried” about keeping their hopes alive for the top seed. He said the most important thing was playing good basketball, and he sure didn’t mind that it came against the Bulls.
“(The rivalry has) become a good one,” said Wade, a native of Chicago. “It doesn’t matter who is in the lineup for either side, it’s a must-see. … The fans enjoy it. They want to see good hard-nosed basketball, and you get that.”
Missing in the lineup Thursday was Miami forward Chris Bosh, who rested minor injuries, and Chicago point guard Derrick Rose, who has a foot problem. But the Bulls didn’t use it as an excuse not having the reigning MVP.
“We wanted it bad, but they wanted it more,” Noah said. “That can’t happen.”
Still, Hamilton called it a “dogfight.” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said “Both sides know that nobody is going to back down.”
Spoelstra knows plenty about Heat rivalries. He was on the team’s staff when they had those epic battles with New York in the playoffs between 1997-2000 and for those two tough series against the Pistons.
“Typical Eastern Conference basketball game in late April,” Spoelstra said to begin his postgame remarks.
When the Heat and Bulls next get together, it could be in late May. All that would do is help grow the NBA’s best current rivalry.