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Steve Aschburner

Jeff Foster, Joakim Noah
Jeff Foster and Joakim Noah mix it up during the Indiana-Chicago series.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Bulls thriving in rough-and-tumble world of NBA playoffs

Posted Apr 27 2011 11:36AM

CHICAGO -- Danny Granger was done for the season -- no more games, no more series -- when the final horn blew at United Center on Tuesday night and he started toward the Chicago Bulls' end of the court.

That's where Joakim Noah was, reveling in the Bulls' 116-89 blowout clincher in Game 5 of a first-round Eastern Conference playoff clash.

"I don't know what I was going to say to him," Granger said, still agitated but half as hot about 20 minutes later. "I knew one thing, the game was over and our series was over, so I couldn't be suspended -- at least not until next season. So I know that was on my mind.

"But in the heat of the moment, you don't want to haul off and do something stupid. I almost let my emotions get the best of me."

The Pacers' forward wanted to confront Noah for what he felt were "dirty" plays in the finale. Noah was involved in skirmishes with Josh McRoberts and Tyler Hansbrough and earned a technical foul in the first quarter, but the Pacers fared worse: McRoberts was ejected for a flagrant 2 foul with 2.5 seconds left in the third (he hit Noah with a forearm, then missed with a lunging elbow away from the ball). Guard A.J. Price got a technical in the fourth quarter after reacting to a Noah-Hansbrough shove-fest.

Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau was walking up the sideline to shake hands with his Pacers counterpart, Frank Vogel, when Thibodeau noticed Granger coming and veered left to block him. Bulls forward Luol Deng stepped close, basically as a character witness for Noah, before the jawing finally subsided.

Granger wasn't quite done, though.

"It's just that Joakim Noah is a dirty player, honestly," he said. "He elbowed two of my power forwards -- one got kicked out, one [Price actually] got a tech and nothing's called on him. But we're in Chicago, we don't expect to get [calls].

"I was trying to let him know that, because I don't believe, stuff like that, there's a place in the game for it. You can make hard fouls and everything, but when you start elbowing people in the face, that's when fights break out."

Hmm. This, evidently, is when the playoffs break out.

We hear it everywhere: From coaches at their practice facilities in between games or series. From old-school alumni in the studio in Atlanta. From media, from fans -- heck, if you asked the First Lady, she'd tell you the NBA postseason is all about hard fouls. (And, of course, she'll tell you to "mix in a salad once in a while.")

Everybody knows playoff basketball is physical. Making an opponent uncomfortable with a slap, a bump, an elbow (oomph!) or a hip is an NBA rite of spring. Some of it is a byproduct of the half-court game, bottling up 10 hungry players at one end of the floor for most of a 24-second possession, over and over. Some of it, though, is flat-out strategy, a way of leveling the field in talent and in reputations so that the less-skilled and less-famous -- and their fans -- can feel they have a chance.

Instead of some end-of-game chippiness, what people should have taken away from Chicago's victory in Game 5 was the stretch in the third quarter, from 6:17 to 2:48, when Indiana's last best hope in the series flickered brightly, before going out completely. A three-point play by Hansbrough had drawn his team within 61-57, a spurt that had Thibodeau rushing Rose back onto the floor despite four personal fouls and that bum left ankle.

The Bulls' point guard resonded with an MVP Value Pack: Three 3-pointers, an assist, a steal from Indiana's Darren Collison in the open court and a block from the weakside of 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert at the rim.

Next thing anyone knew, Chicago's lead was up to 75-60.

"He's just spectacular," Vogel said of Rose. "I wish him all the best. He's a great kid. ... I don't know what you can do against him."

This is the same coach who used gang-tactics to squeeze and pummel Rose through all five games because, hey, that's playoff basketball.

Look, this kind of play is not going anywhere. The NBA isn't going to become a finesse league or suddenly start rewarding run-and-gun teams at this time of year. And the fact is, if Indiana hadn't muscled up against Chicago in the first four games, it probably would not have won one and been close in the other three.

It was only a matter of time before the Bulls responded in kind -- unless they wanted the first round to stretch longer.

"We watched film, we watched them beat us up a little bit," guard Keith Bogans said late Tuesday. "Coach [Thibodeau] kind of emphasized that they were ... y'know, beating us on the boards, getting the loose balls. I just remember him keeping on rewinding the film the other day, and telling us, 'Look at this! Look at this!' And he always showed a guy hitting one of us. I think we just got fed up."

Noah made the most visible adjustments, revving up himself and the UC crowd -- his grandfather Zacherie, father of Yannick, came from Cameroon to watch his first NBA game -- with his energy, his gyrations and, yes, his raised elbows after rebounds. At one point, he allegedly clipped center Jeff Foster, who became a baddie after flagrant fouls on Rose and Deng in Game 3, in the mouth. In the exchange with McRoberts, he did -- Dwight Howard-style -- land a no-look arm high on the Pacers forward.

"He said he got an elbow in the throat," Vogel said. "In this series, everyone got an elbow in the throat."

Noah -- who ironically hung the "dirty" label on Boston's Kevin Garnett last spring, while not even facing the Celtics -- didn't like the characterization one bit.

"I played dirty? OK. I'm just trying to win basketball games, man," the Bulls center said. "It's the name of the game. You guys all know from watching me. I'm just out there ... doing what I've got to do.

"I've got nothing bad to say about them. [But] there's no lie. Everybody saw what's happening out there. Now you want to go and call me a dirty player? I don't think I've ever been called a dirty player. But it is what it is."

Indiana had been lauded for toughening up, No. 8 seed against a No. 1, to the point that the Bulls' own aggression was getting questioned. Now they had answered back and there was nearly a rumble at the end. Was that frustration on Granger's part or a legitimate beef?

"Come on now!" Chicago's Kyle Korver said. "All this stuff we've talked about the Pacers the last few days and their hard fouls? Come on. It's the playoffs. There's going to be hard fouls. There's going to be stuff being said.

"I think they were mad that they were down a little bit. And Jo played with a lot of energy. Jo's one of those guys, when you're not on his team, he [ticks] you off. That's just the way it is. He's like Jeff Foster -- if he's on your team you love him. If he's on the other team, you hate him. That's one of the special things about Jo."

Advancing for only the second time since Michael Jordan exited in 1998, Chicago can expect more of the same from now on. Unless some crafty coach formulates a Rose repellant to spray in the lane, Bulls opponents will continue to wield their swatters. Likewise -- if the Bulls think Howard or another foe is less dangerous from the line than on the blocks.

"That's what happens in the playoffs, for sure," Korver said. "We were taking a lot of hard fouls in this series. I think we handled it pretty well. But you can't expect us not to foul you back if you're out there fouling us."

That's one circle that will be bruised, battered and unbroken.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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