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Bulls' enjoy getting under foes' skin

WashPost: Players have taken on feisty style of coach Skiles
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Scott Skiles once fought Shaquille O'Neal and did not die.

In 1992, the ticking, 6-feet-and-change coach of the Chicago Bulls was a hair-trigger point guard, trying to break up an Orlando Magic practice brawl between O'Neal and journeyman goons Larry Krystkowiak and Greg Kite. Skiles bull-rushed a free-swinging Shaq, all 7 feet 1, 320-something pounds of him.

True story, if exaggerated.

"We laugh about it now; I tell him I'm the only guy who beat him up," Skiles said. "But actually he had me around the neck. It was sore for about six weeks."

Thirteen years later, Skiles's mantra should be no pain, no playoffs.

If you're wondering why a harassed, bumped and held Gilbert Arenas was lobbying veteran official Dick Bavetta for calls in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference playoff series between the Bulls and Wizards, it is because Chicago's players have co-opted the piranha persona of their coach.

Yesterday after the Bulls practiced, Skiles described how his players are able to use multiple defenders to stop much more talented offensive players. "We're a good help defensive team," explained.

No, the Bulls are a good hurt defensive team. They punished the Wizards on Sunday night, doling out 26 hard fouls and making Washington's two misfiring all-stars, Arenas and Antawn Jamison, think twice before attacking the rim. That bruising, brutish style has already influenced the tenor of the series and renewed all the old NBA arguments about talent vs. toughness.

"I will always fight the perception that we're dirty," said John Paxson, the Bulls' general manager. "The truth is, no one likes somebody playing hard on them every second of every game."

The lines between physical, dirty and downright thuggish are often infinitesimal in the NBA. What Pat Riley once viewed as acceptable on-court behavior during the Knicks-Bulls scraps in the early 1990s, his coaching counterpart Phil Jackson considered assault under the color of authority.

What Skiles thinks of as aggressive, bump-and-grind defense, Arenas , the Wizards' free-bird scorer of unlimited talent, perceives as jealous hacking.

"We know they have a couple of dirty players," Arenas said, three days before missing 16 of 19 shots against the Bulls in Game 1. Arenas clarified his comments after the loss -- "If you're a good defensive team, you're going to be dirty," he said -- but the inference was clear: Since the Bulls don't have the athletic ability to hold the quick and gifted Wizards point guard and his teammates down, the thinking is that they need to grab, hold and push to survive the first round.

Being this is the maiden playoff series for many Wizards, including Arenas, they should know something about the postseason Skiles always has: If you're not holding and grabbing, you're not trying and you're probably not advancing.

The NBA desperately wants its most entertaining teams and players to win, move on and make a genuine ratings grab. If Commissioner David Stern could order up the NBA Finals, he would take Phoenix vs. Miami over Detroit vs. San Antonio any June.

Yet the problem for aesthetically pleasing teams like the Suns, SuperSonics and Wizards is that most NBA referees still reward effort more than athletic ability. Many officials caught up in the let-them-play 90s are still adjusting to calling postseason games tighter and more to the liking of a team like Eddie Jordan's.

Hence, the fourth-best player on Argentina's Olympic team roughed up the Wizards in Game 1. Andres Nocioni scored 25 points, hauled in 18 rebounds and got his licks in with four fouls while playing all 48 minutes. Nocioni has a nastiness to him, enough to make him crack Detroit's Tayshaun Prince in the head with an elbow, which recently earned the Bulls' rookie a one-game suspension. Is Nocioni tough and physical or dirty and flagrant? Depends on who he is playing for and who is calling the game and who his coach is.

"We're in a league where a lot of guys have known each other since they were 12 years old, playing AAU ball," Skiles said. " They've traveled around together and everybody does the big, hugging and kissing match before the jump ball. But anybody who really competes, somehow gets that word [dirty] tossed at them, normally by people who don't like physical play."

Let's be clear about the Wizards: They have not signed a non-aggression pact. From Etan Thomas to Kwame Brown, they have big bodies and strong presences to combat the Bulls' most ornery players. And Jordan, more than anyone, knows that mental toughness always wins out over physical roughness.

But something about Skiles's personality has manifested itself in his team. It makes 7-foot Brendan Haywood take fadeaway jumpers and Arenas complain more than get to the free throw line. It invigorates a team with clearly less offensive talent than Washington.

Postscript to the Magic team brawl: It happened at the Forum in Los Angeles. Orlando was slumping and had lost to the Clippers the night before, back when losing to the Clippers was embarrassing.

After the melee broke up, O'Neal, Skiles and the Magic bonded. For what it's worth, they destroyed the Lakers the next day.