CHICAGO – For all the magnificence of the longest NBA winning streak in more than 40 years, for the ease with which LeBron James has obliterated the rest of the sport in victory upon victory, the Chicago Bulls had left the game's greatest player exasperated at the end of this historic pursuit, left him flustered with a flurry of ferocious physicality.
These Bulls had come hard for James, come with blunt force, and James' message was unmistakable on Wednesday night: From the Bulls and beyond, why has it become open season on him?
"I know that a lot of my fouls are not basketball plays," James said late Wednesday inside the United Center. "First of all, Kirk Hinrich basically grabbed me with two hands and brought me to the ground. Taj Gibson was able to collar me around my shoulder and bring me to the ground. Those are not basketball plays – and it's been happening all year.
"I've been able to keep my cool and try to tell [Erik Spoelstra], 'Let's not worry about it too much.' But it's getting to me a little bit. Because every time I try to defend myself, I've got to face the consequences of a flagrant for me or a technical foul."
At the end of this monumental run for the Heat, at the end of 27 consecutive victories, James dropped the ball at the buzzer and walked down the corridor and into the rest of his season. When everything had unraveled in the final moments and James had grown disillusioned over the brutality of the Bulls, he lowered his shoulder into Carlos Boozer and earned himself a flagrant-one foul. Downright delirious, the United Center unleashed a torrent of mocking cheers.
[Related: Heat's 27-game win streak ends]
Across the streak – across another MVP season – everyone had grown so used to James delivering dramatic fourth-quarter performances. Only this night belonged to Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer and Tom Thibodeau. Only this night was a reminder of how these Bulls can still make life miserable for James, still test him with a physical and psychological warfare.
The Heat hadn't lost a basketball game since Feb. 1 and Spoelstra had gone two months without speaking to them of the streak. In the freshest moments of the loss, the Heat's coach gathered his players together in the locker room.
[Photos: Chicago ends Miami's bid at NBA history]
"I had everyone come in and put a hand on each other," Spoelstra said. "It was a heck of an experience to have together. Its significance will mean much more to us later in our careers."
Despite the winning, Spoelstra had come to believe the victories were stagnating the Heat. Across the past several games "we were hanging on and we weren't getting better," he insisted.
For these Heat, the ultimate measure remains the pursuit of a championship. Now, James waits to discover how the NBA's officials respond to his overture on Wednesday night. He was flustered, yes, but speaking out in such strong terms had to be calculated on some levels. Over time, James has become far more judicious in his public proclamations. With his dominance – with the way he looms over the sport – his calls for the refs and league office to see past his colossal body and protect him have to be heeded.
Twenty-seven victories come and gone now with a moment of locker-room reflection, Miami had moved swiftly onto setting its agenda for the playoffs. From Spoelstra to James, messages were delivered for those inside and outside the Heat, and the coach finally said, "Now we have to move on."
Hell of a run for these Heat, hell of a testament to LeBron James' greatness night upon night. Something rare happened on Wednesday night, something no one had seen in so, so long: The Chicago Bulls brought LeBron James to his knees, brought him bare-knuckles basketball. Finally, these Heat lost a basketball game. After a moment of reflection in the losing locker room, after a moment for the game's greatest player to make a rare public case for justice, the Miami Heat move on.
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