By ANDREW SELIGMAN
CHICAGO — The suggestion that he’s a flopper drew a grin as wide as his wingspan from LeBron James.
Miami’s superstar shot down the accusations from the Chicago Bulls, saying they reminded him of the days when some claimed he was overrated and questioned his ability to lead a team to a championship.
“It’s kind of the same (as when) I heard people say I was overrated,” he said Sunday. “It’s kind of like the same response.”
The Heat are trying to repeat as champions after a dominant regular season, and if they keep this up, they won’t have to worry about Chicago much longer. Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals is today (1 p.m. Hawaii time, TNT) and Miami has a chance to take a 3-1 lead in a series with no shortage of hard fouls, technicals, ejections and fines. One thing in short supply is healthy bodies for the Bulls, with Luol Deng still recovering from a spinal tap and Kirk Hinrich from a bruised left calf. The odds that either would play seemed slim at best on Sunday.
Meanwhile, coach Tom Thibodeau’s wallet is a little lighter after the league smacked him with a $35,000 fine on Sunday.
That hit came after he accused James of flopping on that shove to the floor and questioned the officiating after the Heat took Game 3, saying the Bulls weren’t going to get the benefit of the calls. Thibodeau had already addressed the media by the time the punishment was announced and declined comment through a team spokesman.
Yet there was still plenty of talk about that incident between James and Mohammed.
“None of this is new to us,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Nobody can hide from the fact that the games will be decided between those four lines. And our guys understand that.”
The Bulls’ Taj Gibson expects more of the same.
“Both teams are tough and aggressive,” he said. “It’s playoff basketball. We’re both rivals. They acknowledged it. We acknowledged it. It’s just guys going after it playing like they don’t like each other. But it’s just playoff basketball.”
In Game 3, Joakim Noah had already shoved Miami’s Chris Andersen after he landed on a driving Nate Robinson late in the first quarter, and things nearly boiled over early in the second.
With James dribbling near midcourt, Mohammed reached in to take a foul and stop a potential break. Their arms got tangled. Mohammed fell, and when he got up, he gave James a hard shove to the court.
Both players picked up technicals. Mohammed got tossed, making him the third Bulls player to get ejected in the series along with Noah and Taj Gibson.
“I don’t need to flop,” James said. “I play an aggressive game. I don’t flop. I’ve never been one of those guys.”
It’s probably worth noting that James accused the Bulls of crossing the line a few times back in late March, when they beat Miami at the United Center to snap Miami’s 27-game win streak.
“What I said is what I said, but I don’t want to get involved too much with what everybody else says about us, about me,” he said. “It’s nothing I haven’t heard before in my career. It’s nothing. … I’m here to play basketball and do whatever it takes for our team to win. So what a coach and players say to me and about me, I don’t really care.”
Both teams have concerns that stretch beyond the officiating.
For the Bulls, it remains their health. Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of Derrick Rose’s surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, and the only suiting up he’s done for a game since then has involved a jacket and tie.
Just about every other key player has missed time at some point, and that’s continued into the postseason.
Deng has missed five straight games, Hinrich has sat out six in a row, and both looked like longshots at best to play in Game 4 with Thibodeau saying they’re day to day.
Hinrich did little other than some shooting and ride a bike, and Deng couldn’t do much, either.
“My body, my system, is not reacting well to anything I’m doing right now,” Deng said.
He said he’s feeling a little better and has regained two of the 15 pounds he lost because of the illness, but when he tries to exert himself, well, he really can’t.
Deng said he tried to work out individually on Saturday and wound up vomiting. He attempted to practice on Sunday and became ill during warmups, forcing him to stop.
“I spoke to coach a little bit, If I could give 5 or 10 minutes, give these guys a little bit of a break but I can’t even get through a regular warmup,” Deng said.
The Heat, meanwhile, continue to face questions about Dwyane Wade and his sore right knee. He took just seven shots and scored 10 points in Game 3, but he insisted that had more to do with the flow of the game and the Bulls packing the lane than his health.
“A lot of my opportunities were not in the flow of the offense,” he said. “If I would have shot a lot, it would have been forced. When I had the ball, I tried to make the best play. Sometimes, it’s to get two guys on me and pass it.”