Raw intensity, and physical play, have stamped the Miami Heat-Chicago Bulls playoff series, which continues with Game 4 tonight (Miami leads, 2-1). The shorthanded Bulls and their defense-first coach, Tom Thibodeau, know there’s only one way they can beat the Heat: by beating them up.
In Game 2 last week, the refs called nine technical fouls, and two Bulls were ejected. In Game 3, Chicago’s Nazr Mohammed ran down James, like a madman, and hacked him. After James took exception with an elbow, Mohammed shoved James to the floor. Mohammed was ejected. Thibodeau accused James of flopping, and earned a $35,000 fine for criticizing the officials.
Chicago’s effort hasn’t been pretty. But is this roughhouse series setting basketball back? No way. Save finesse for the Finals. The Bulls are doing what they need to do to win, and watching Chicago try to get under Miami’s skin, and rattle the Heat into submission, has been great fun.
Plus, it’s not all that ugly. This Bulls-Heat series got me thinking back to 21 years ago, the last time I can remember a team so overtly slugging a superior opponent. In that 1992 Eastern conference semifinal series, the New York Knicks faced the defending champion Chicago Bulls, who finished the regular season with a 67-15 record. The Bulls had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The Knicks had Patrick Ewing – and pretty much no shot. New York’s coach was Pat Riley, now president of the Heat. (So Riley can’t gripe)
So what does Xavier McDaniel, whose intimidation of Pippen and the Bulls in that series stood out, think of this current match-up? “I definitely don’t think it’s more physical,” says McDaniel, who spent a dozen years in the NBA. He now runs a trucking and shipping company; in 1985, at Wichita St., McDaniel became the first college player to lead the country in points and rebounds. (He also made a memorable cameo in the movie Singles). “I’d chase guys all over the place, and still not get a technical foul called on me,” says McDaniel. “I wouldn’t be able to play in today’s game. I’d get kicked out.”
That Knicks team, McDaniel says, didn’t go into that series with a specific plan to knock Jordan on his behind. But the Knicks mixed it up with the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons, who played a bruising style, in the first round of the ’92 year’s playoffs, and realized they could punch back. “We had to match their intensity,” says McDaniel. “And it was like, ‘s—t,’ we can win playing like this. And I loved playing physical. We just carried it over into the next series.” The Knicks stretched Chicago to seven games. “With Pippen about to blow by him into the lane, McDaniel instinctively took both hands and shoved him back,” wrote the New York Times after Game 4, which the Knicks won at home to even it at 2-2. “Knocked off balance, Pippen lost his dribble and the Knicks were soon breaking the other way.” At the end of the third quarter, an exasperated Phil Jackson was ejected. “They’re shoving our dribblers with two hands,” Chicago’s coach sniped. “And that’s against the rules.”
The Bulls won Game 7 110-81, behind Jordan’s 42 points. During Chicago’s six championship seasons, Jordan and Co. only played two seven-game series – 1992 against the Knicks, and the 1998 Eastern Conference finals, against the Indiana Pacers. “Ah man, I tell you, it was so intense,” says McDaniel. “After the first couple of games, I could barely walk.”
Naturally, McDaniel admires Chicago’s game plan. “That’s how the Bulls have to play,” says McDaniel. “You’ve got to make LeBron James nervous. You’ve got to have him thinking that if he comes into the lane, someone’s going to knock the crap out of him.”
“I don’t think the Bulls are giving cheap shots,” says McDaniel. “Look, everyone gives cheap shots. I gave a lot of cheap shots. If a motherf—– is going to give you an elbow, you’re going to elbow the mother—– back. And if you get hit, don’t whine about it. Get up and make your foul shots. If you make your foul shots, f—ers won’t foul you anymore.”
McDaniel’s advice to Chicago is simple. “The Bulls have to be who they are,” says McDaniel. “They’ve got to keep the game ugly.” Here’s hoping they do so. This series deserves to go seven.