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Steve Aschburner

Rip Hamilton looks menacing, but he's more of a shooter than a fighter.
Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

After Miami mauling, Bulls have to worry about 'soft' tag

Posted Apr 20 2012 2:02PM

Here we thought it was Derrick Rose, healthy, and Richard Hamilton, ready, that the Chicago Bulls needed most to make a serious run at the Finals.

Now we see it's Kurt Thomas and Keith Bogans, gritty, that the Bulls miss just as much at the moment.

Physical toughness is Chicago's latest issue, in the wake of its 98-lb. weakling loss at Miami Thursday night. But it's more than just a deficiency du jour flaring up against some bullies from South Beach over a random stretch of sand. This is a concern that could trouble the Bulls through the postseason, to be added to coach Tom Thibodeau's and general manager Gar Forman's very real and growing list:

Rose's health. Five different injuries that have cost him 26 games. On the heels of his spectacular MVP season, most of the drama he's provided has come in the hour or so before tipoff (will he play or won't he?).

Hamilton's rust. The Thin Man has missed 38 of 63. And to think, he thought he sat a lot last year in Detroit.

Luol Deng's off-hand. He's playing with the equivalent of a bull's-eye on the torn ligament in his left wrist. Thibodeau's main glue guy routinely gets drive-by whackings on that injury from opponents.

Offensive potency. Last season's Bulls averaged 98.6 points with non-scorer Bogans in the starting lineup 82 times, and weren't happy with their scoring options. This season, with Hamilton only kinda-sorta aboard, they're averaging 96.3.

On-court familiarity. Thibodeau has shuffled through 12 different starting lineups, compared to eight in 2010-11. The Bulls have lost 97 man-games to injuries in 63 games so far, compared to 61 in 82 last season.

Now there is the possibility that this skilled, crafty and resilient basketball team -- the NBA's most successful over the past two regular seasons -- will find itself getting punked in the playoffs. For a lot of folks in a smash-mouth sports market still defined by Da Coach and already focused on the thug-heavy NHL postseason, the idea that the Bulls might get manhandled as they get dispatched would be intolerable, vaulting toughness to the top of that worry list.

Consider the Miami loss: Heat reserve James Jones delivers a double-forearm hit high on Chicago center Joakim Noah, while Noah's back is turned. Video Jones gets tossed for a flagrant-2 foul but the Bulls just shake it off. Dwyane Wade gets a technical foul Video for pushing Hamilton to the floor in the third quarter -- Hamilton gets a T, too, but it's Wade who seems fired up by the confrontation, scoring Miami's next seven points.

"Like Detroit all over again," Wade told media folks afterward, referring to his matchup with Hamilton in previous seasons. "One of those pesky defenders who gets away with a lot of stuff. I just decided to bring a little more attention to it."

Then LeBron James Video plants a massive shoulder into pesky John Lucas III on a blind screen, flattening the backup Bulls guard like a metal duck in a shooting gallery. Lucas bounces up and rushes at James, who flicks him away like so much dandruff.

"There was a lot of stuff going on, a lot of stuff going on," Thibodeau said. "Every time we play them, that's the way its going to be. You have to have the mental toughness to get through all of that. You can't shy away from any of that stuff. It's going to be there. And that's the way we like it. I just want to see them respond."

Mental toughness is great. But physical toughness is helpful, too, for planting some doubts in the other guys' minds about getting too comfortable. For giving as good as your team is getting.

Thomas, now with Portland, has those crazy eyes, a barrel chest and a connoisseur's appreciation for the manly art of physical basketball. Bogans, waived by New Jersey in February, had that thousand-yard stare when he needed it, too, and was expendable enough in Bulls' actual X&Os to use his six personal fouls wisely and firmly.

One of the downsides to the Bulls' exceptional depth -- and their constant need for it -- is that there's no one to throw out there for toughness' sake alone. Their brawniest player, Carlos Boozer, is a diplomat in kerfuffles. Noah is a lover, not a fighter. Hamilton can be edgy, but a bump from an arena blimp could probably stagger him. Omer Asik? C'mon. Taj Gibson is too valuable as Boozer's backup. Kyle Korver is stronger now, but also the most reliable deep threat.

Miami, by comparison, gets so little from so many on its bench that it has five or six guys over there representing maybe 36 available hard fouls. It's not just scrubs, either; Wade and James are plenty willing to do their own hard labor, with superstar latitude and battle-tested resolve adding to their physical strength. The Bulls certainly don't exude that.

Oh, and it's not just against Miami that the Bulls will face this stuff. Indiana very deliberately pushed them around in the first round last spring and will try it again if the teams meet this year -- United Center villains Jeff Foster and Josh McRoberts are gone but Tyler Hansbrough is eminently capable, and even Danny Granger, Dahntay Jones and Lance Stephenson play more chippy than any of Chicago's guys. New York, Boston, Atlanta and anyone else in the East would be smart to get physical with them.

Clinching the league's No. 1 seed overall and buying themselves a week of prep time wasn't enough to stiffen Chicago on Thursday. Slipping to No. 2 and heading into the first round with the aforementioned list of issues might not do it either.

But hearing themselves referred to as the (ahem) Chicago Steers, rather than Bulls, might just do the trick.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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