The Bulls have always nailed the introductions. They were, I believe, the first team to turn the lights down, crank the music up, bust out a few lasers and make the announcement of their team feel like a capital-E event. This is what happens when your team employs the most popular and most dominant athlete of a generation as its top star. Everything else just followed suit.
The Thunderdome-feel of Chicago Stadium might have died now almost two decades ago, but the United Center still knows what it's doing. It's gigantic for a basketball stadium, a point justified by years of consecutive sell-outs and amplified during the playoffs. The United Center can still get very loud, and it does when the Bulls are in the postseason. They still know how to announce the starters.
Not much about introductions at the United Center has changed through the years. The lights are still turned off, the music remains the same, the best player still gets announced last. But during the Bulls' second round playoff series with the Miami Heat, the away introductions feel more appropriate than what the UC does for the home team.
Bulls vs. Heat has always had a "Good Guys vs. Bad Guys" feel; partly because it's a natural angle to play up in sports, partly because Miami occupies the role of the villain so well. While it's not unique to the Heat, something feels right about hearing LeBron James' name called while the "Imperial March" plays out over the PA.
For Bulls vs. Heat, the theme is neatly-packaged from the moment you hear names of the opposition. From Tom Thibodeau's outward disgust at every borderline call to open post-game criticism from the players, Chicago wants you to know they don't like the Heat. Game 3 took it a step further on Friday. As the teams walked onto the court with Metallica blaring, they wouldn't even shake hands. Jeff Van Gundy said he's never seen it happen in an NBA game before. The lack of dap only served as a precursor for one of the more physical games you'll see in today's NBA. This isn't playoff hockey, but sometimes it doesn't feel far off.
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"We really dislike each other," said Taj Gibson after Game 3.
Nate Robinson cracked, "You see LeBron in a lot of commercials, a lot of good acting."
"We're not going to get calls," Thibodeau groaned. "That's reality."
You wonder if the Bulls believe this is the truth or if it's really just a coping mechanism to mask a greater reality. The Bulls are undermanned, and they know it. Miami is the odds-on favorite to win the championship for the second season in the row. They're the team with the historically-long winning streak, the team with the best player in the world, the team with a perfectly healthy supporting cast that plays its role to perfection. If anyone else other than Miami won the NBA title this year, it would be an outright shock. It's part of what makes Bulls-Heat so compelling: Chicago has no business making this series competitive, yet here the Bulls are, still in position to complain about calls from the officials that really do affect the game, whether the complaints are justified or not.
Thibodeau was fined $35,000 for his critical comments about the officiating after Game 3. It all harkens back to when the Bulls somehow ended the Heat's 27-game winning streak in March without their two best players, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. Kirk Hinrich tackled James in the open court on a breakaway, and the Bulls hit Miami hard whenever they drove into the paint. After the game, LeBron said "those weren't basketball plays." Everything that's happened since has been an extension of that memorable night.
For the Bulls, the fight is commendable, but it's easy to wonder what they're complaining about. Nazr Mohammed shoved James to the ground in the open court during a dead ball in Game 3, and the Bulls argued it was a flop. It was an indefensible move from Mohammed after a borderline technical was called on James for throwing him down. That Noah shoved Chris Andersen while on the ground for no apparent reason earlier in the game only boosted tensions and put the refs on high alert. The other issue: Chicago complaining about a flop after an obviously dirty play obstructs other questionable calls that went against the Bulls in the final minutes, like an over-the-back foul on a Noah offensive rebound and what looked like a slap on the hand from Dwyane Wade as Marco Belinelli drained a late corner three.
The simple fact is that fans blame the officials too often for their team's fate. The Bulls aren't down 2-1 to Miami because the referees are intentionally screwing over the Bulls, because they want the Heat to advance in the playoffs. The Bulls are losing to the Heat because they aren't nearly as talented.
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This series started out with a "happy to be here" vibe from Chicago after the team valiantly overcame a host of injuries and ailments to defeat the Brooklyn Nets on the road in Game 7. No one expected the Bulls to actually have a chance against the Heat, but Chicago's incredible Game 1 victory changed the story. Chicagoans know deep down the Bulls are doomed, but it's easy to be convinced otherwise when the score is close late and Bulls refuse to back down.
It's something that the Bulls can even come so close, to make it where the outcome really can swing on a few calls. For the Bulls to win, so much needs to go their way. It makes sense, doesn't it? If Miami were the team without its MVP, its All-Star forward, its starting point guard, it isn't hard to imagine they'd be run out of the gym. If the healthy Bulls were playing the Heat without James, Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers, few would expect Miami to win a postseason series, let alone make the second round interesting.
It goes to show just how incredible the Bulls' performance has been thus far, taking impossible odds and throwing them to the side. If the Bulls wanted to make excuses, they've had a 100 different opportunities this year. When the Bulls complain about the officiating against the Heat, it isn't so much an excuse as it is an admission. Chicago knows its task is preposterous given the circumstances. They just want you to know they aren't going down without a fight.