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Emotion gets the better of Bulls — again

Mohammed loses his cool against James, and Heat take advantage for 2-1 series lead

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

12:49 AM CDT, May 11, 2013

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In the heat of battle, emotion can embolden us all.

So the 22,675 fans at the United Center can be forgiven for lustily chanting "NAZR! NAZR!" after Bulls center Nazr Mohammed impetuously shoved LeBron James to the floor in retaliation during the second quarter of a 104-94 loss to the Heat on Friday night.

Fans paid good money for the right to scream whatever they want, no matter how misguided their support of Mohammed was. Their animus was understandable. After all, James was involved.

James is Chicago's sworn nemesis, a 6-foot-8, 250-pound obstacle in the way of the Bulls and their next NBA Finals appearance, a superstar who gets almost every call the way he did again in Game 3 and whines about the ones he doesn't.

The sight of James being forcibly pushed down by Mohammed, by anybody in a Bulls uniform, creates an impulsive, visceral reaction from fans that needs no apology. Down. Goes. LeBron.

Mohammed, however, is another story.

Friday marked the 15-year veteran's 76th playoff game. He reacted to an altercation like a naive rookie. He should know better. The Bulls' margin of error is too thin for Mohammed to be so thickheaded.

"You can't push a guy down,'' Mohammed said. "I was wrong. But to get kicked out, I don't get that."

As James dribbled up the court with 9 minutes, 29 seconds left in the second quarter, for reasons only Mohammed knows, the 6-10 center reached in to "stop the break'' and committed a foul near midcourt. It almost looked like an intentional foul. Their arms tangled and Mohammed fell with a nudge from James. Furious, Mohammed got up off the floor and charged at James and pushed him in the chest so hard he fell backward.

"From my angle, I saw a guy basically flop,'' coach Tom Thibodeau said. "I'm going to leave it at that.''

From my angle, I saw an off-balance James sell Mohammed's shove like the accomplished actor he is, but he would have fallen anyway. I saw Mohammed put himself and the Bulls in a situation he easily could have avoided. Even if James did flop, you can't flip your lid.

Both players drew technical fouls and Mohammed got the ejection he deserved. Fans chanted his name, but Mohammed's rash move was nothing to cheer. The Bulls need to show fight to beat the Heat, but not literally.

As Mohammed sat in the Bulls locker room after the second ejection of his 973-game NBA career, the rage eventually left but, surprisingly, regret never entered his mind.

"It's one of those things that happened so quickly that I didn't have a chance to think that I can regret now,'' Mohammed said. "It's my character flaw. I can't really say I wouldn't do the same thing over again. I hope I wouldn't. I am going to pray on it and try not to but it was just instinctive. I thought it was a cheap shot, throwing me down, when all I was doing was trying to stop the (fast) break.''

All Mohammed did was leave the Bulls with no bench. More like a stool. From that point on, the only substitute Thibodeau could trust in such a tight playoff game was Taj Gibson. Rookie Marquis Teague played 10 minutes but none of them at center. Four Bulls starters played more than 42 minutes.

"Nazr is a big part of our team,'' Thibodeau said. "He normally gives Jo a rest, but we had to extend his minutes.''

Whether fatigue played a role in the Bulls fading in the fourth quarter nobody will know, but we can suspect. It is much easier to conclude Mohammed hurt his team in a game the Bulls needed every minute from reserves.

If Mohammed had played no role in the playoffs, he would not have been as significant by his absence. But his postseason resurgence made it an issue impossible to ignore. Think Mohammed could have helped keep Noah fresher to stop Chris Bosh — who dominated with 20 points and 19 rebounds — or even occasionally stopped Bosh himself?

After James complained publicly about the Bulls bullying him with defense that "are not basketball plays'' in a March loss, Mohammed should have realized whom he was shoving. After officiating officially became a storyline for the series, Thibodeau worried before tipoff Friday about Bulls players preparing more for referee Joey Crawford than Heat supersub Norris Cole.

"You can't get wrapped up in the wrong stuff,'' Thibodeau said.

Then the bad-boy Bulls went out and ignored their coach. Before Mohammed's incident with James, Joakim Noah set the tone for overreaction by rushing to defend Nate Robinson after Chris Andersen fell on Robinson near the Bulls bench. Noah pushed Andersen off Robinson, a gesture that wasn't very Zen at all.

Predictably, the crowd broke into a chorus of "Let's Go Bulls!'' but all it proved was the Bulls hadn't really learned anything from their Game 2 meltdown in Miami. Emotion can be the Bulls' biggest strength when they use it as fuel to overcome, as they did in Game 7 against the Nets and Game 1 against the Heat. But it also can become their biggest weakness when they cannot control it, as Game 2 suggested and Noah and Mohammed especially confirmed.

The Bulls didn't beat the Heat to take a 1-0 series lead by trying to reprise the 1980s Pistons. They beat them by leading with their hearts and keeping their heads, something they haven't done for 48 minutes since. They did it by not making questionable calls by the refs matter and by making every possession count.

A better chance to beat the Heat in this series might not come. James struggled, hitting 6 of 17 shots. Dwyane Wade looked old enough at times to have played at Marquette for Al McGuire. Cole stole the show with 18 points. This was a missed opportunity.

When push came to shove, the Bulls let the Heat get the best of them.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh