Lots of fight left

CHICAGO -- My only unanswered question right now: If Bulls vice president John Paxson tried to bully coach Vinny Del Negro over Joakim Noah's minutes, did he send Gar Forman in first?

After all, Forman, the team's general manager since Paxson moved up the hierarchical ladder to VP/Being the Boss, is like the Proxy Pax.

I mean, we can all imagine this happening. Tempers run hot, two competitors, a frayed relationship. It all adds up.

At least this explains the complex phone tree necessary to determine if Noah could play more minutes in Chicago's overtime loss at New Jersey on Friday. Everyone wondered why Lindsey Hunter, the Bulls' player development assistant, had to ask Forman, who then had to ask Paxson's permission to get Noah more time in a crucial game. What a dis-organization!

Just before the biggest game of the season -- well, until Wednesday -- the story buzzing around the United Center, like Ante Robinson on Red Bull, was a Yahoo Sports report that said Paxson physically confronted Del Negro on March 30 because the coach played Noah too many minutes in the wake of his plantar fasciitis injury.

With one story, the Bulls' front office looks like a leaky ship with no one steering. Tuesday night's national broadcast that should have focused on the brilliance of Derrick Rose, the resiliency of Noah and the guts of Kirk Hinrich was turned into a soap-opera guessing game. All the attention made the Bulls' organization look like a joke.

"What happened?" Rose said when he was asked about it. "No, I never heard about it. If it did happen, it slipped by me."

The TNT broadcast discussed the incident all night, with Charles Barkley putting his money on Del Negro in a fight. Barkley, of course, is known as a terrible gambler. Those who know Paxson's temper wouldn't bet against him.

The situation is serious enough that the Bulls hired lawyers to investigate the matter, Yahoo reported.

Even in the wake of Rose's career-high 39 points in a thrilling 101-93 must-win over a full-strength Boston team on Tuesday -- which put the Bulls' playoff magic number at one with the season finale Wednesday in Charlotte -- the topic still dominated much of Del Negro's postgame press conference. Who can ignore something sexy like two former guards going at it in Italian knit?

The players had no idea this was a story line until after the game. When I asked Noah if he knew about the internal debate over his readiness, he gave a very long "no comment."

"Things happen in an organization, and some things are not for you guys to know," Noah said, staring a hole in my head. "It's for us, and I think we're fighting so hard as a team and we're giving everything that we got, I don't think it's fair for us as players to be talking about some, some ... I mean, that's petty stuff. It's nothing. It's really nothing."

OK, so it's nothing. Except it's not. Everyone loves conflict, and this story was lousy with juicy subplots.

Del Negro affirmed to a TNT reporter that he and Paxson did argue over Noah's minutes after the Phoenix game on March 30. And Del Negro, who has been hung out to dry by management all season with a halfhearted show of confidence over his future, handled the postgame questions masterfully, never raising his voice or showing his impatience with the questions. Del Negro isn't the most colorful quote, but he might be the most professional interview in the game.

"That's all internal stuff," he said. "I focus on what I can control, and I can control the preparation for the game and the preparation of the staff, and getting players ready to go. We've been battling here for a while with a lot of different things, a lot of adversity, and the guys have stayed together, they've shown great character and they've kept fighting for each other. That's a great sign. I give the guys a lot of credit for playing with intensity and effort they have, amidst the different circumstances."

This was really a time when the focus should have been on the game itself, because the Bulls acquitted themselves like playoff contenders.

With an unusually interested crowd for the last regular-season home game, the Bulls played with their usual beguiling level of intensity. Yes, this was the same team that lost to New Jersey on Friday.

Four of the starters played over 40 minutes, including Noah, who grabbed 16 rebounds to go with nine points, two assists and three steals in a team-high 46:19.

Rose hit 15-of- 22 shots and 9-of-10 free throws, and had seven assists and five rebounds. He looked every bit the All-Star and made all the right moves, exploding to the basket and hitting his free throws.

"It was just one of those days," Rose said. "It wasn't really me. It was my teammates giving me confidence. It was the crowd. The building was amazing tonight. I love playing here, being under tough circumstances and making me go out and perform."

Hinrich played the role of wily veteran, scoring 30 points on 11-of-20 shooting. He hit 4-of-7 3-pointers.

In the fourth, when close games often slip out of the Bulls' grasp, Rose hit all six of his shots and all five free throws. Hinrich hit two big 3s, as the Bulls outscored the Celtics 34-25 to close out the game.

"Kirky Worky, that's my guy," Noah said. "He played very well tonight."

Noah was all over his guards when they did something well, enveloping them in his arms and giving them noogies.

"When he does something good, I don't play with his ponytail," Hinrich said.

No one would be surprised if Del Negro gets the ax, whether it's this week or next. He's got the job security of a 300-pound Luvabull. All the focus has been directed toward this summer's free-agent crop, a direction never more evident than at the trade deadline when the team gave away two top rotation players. And when Del Negro was all but locked out of the Berto Center in December, the organization gave him a halfhearted show of support.

But right now, this shouldn't be the story.

The Bulls face a win-and-they're-in scenario Wednesday night in Charlotte, coincidentally playing Tyrus Thomas, who they dumped at the trade deadline.

"I don't know why," Noah said, "but people have been saying that Charlotte game at the end of the year -- everyone circled that game and said it's going to be a huge game, and it's true."

The Bulls have played more back-to-back games than any team in the league, so it is really fitting that the last one of the season decides their postseason fate.

"We're confident, but we still have to go out and play that game," Rose said. "They're a team that plays hard no matter who's playing for them. Larry Brown is a good coach. He won't let them go out and blow the game like that."

Don't say this game doesn't mean anything for Del Negro. Who knows the next time he'll get to be a head coach, and I'm sure he didn't want his last home presser to be about a fight with his boss.

"Things happen, and there's a lot of emotion involved in this game," he said. "A lot of things that happen on a daily basis. ... Every opportunity and every challenge just makes you better in the long run."

If that's true, Del Negro is in for a long career somewhere else, and these Bulls just might challenge Cleveland in the first round. But first they have to beat Charlotte, and that's all that matters.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.