Del Negro mum on report of altercation

CHICAGO -- Chicago Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro refused to address a Yahoo Sports column that quoted anonymous sources saying vice president John Paxson apparently tried to provoke a fight with Del Negro after a March 30 game at the United Center.

According to the column, Paxson was angry that Del Negro played Joakim Noah more than an established time limit as Noah battled plantar fasciitis in his left foot. Noah played 27 minutes that night against the Phoenix Suns.

"All those things are internal, I have no comment on that," Del Negro said after the Bulls beat the Boston Celtics 101-93. "Whatever happens is between the organization and myself, and the people involved."

The Bulls increased their lead over the Raptors for the final playoff spot in the East to one game, but Toronto owns the tiebreaker.

The win over Boston was televised on TNT, and a reporter for that network said Del Negro confirmed that there was an argument over minutes, but he wouldn't confirm that there was a pushing incident with Paxson.

The Bulls have hired lawyers to talk to witnesses about the March 30 incident, according to Yahoo Sports.

After the March 30 game, Paxson walked into the coaches' office, grabbed Del Negro by the tie and poked him with jabs into the chest, according to Yahoo Sports. Paxson was heard challenging Del Negro to a fight, the Web site stated.

Paxson did not return a message to ESPNChicago.com on Tuesday. "It's an organizational issue, and we're going to handle it internally," Bulls media relations director Tim Hallam said.

Bulls assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff intervened and pulled Paxson away, according to Yahoo Sports. Del Negro didn't retaliate out of fear it could lead the Bulls to void his contract, or possibly hamper his marketability in the future, sources told the Web site.

"I go about my job every day, no matter what happens," Del Negro said Tuesday. "I'm a competitor, and I've been involved in the game a long time. I love the competition, love the challenge of it all.

"All the other things that happen are internal. But of course, this is the NBA and when things happen ... it's going to come out. You handle it, be professional with it, show great leadership and go about your business."

Del Negro went on to say the off-the-court incidents are "irrelevant."

"I don't have time to waste on that," he said. "Our focus is on the players.

"I focus on what I control, and I can control the preparation of the game, the preparation of the staff and getting players ready to go. We've been battling all season with a lot of adversity, and the guys have stayed together. They've showed great character fighting for each other. That's a great sign. I give the guys a lot of credit for playing with the intensity they have amidst some different circumstances."

The issue of Noah's playing time surfaced again Friday in New Jersey when Del Negro didn't play the center late in the fourth quarter because he was at his 35-minute limit. Del Negro had assistant coach Lindsey Hunter ask general manager Gar Forman if he could extend Noah's minutes. Forman had to contact Paxson, who gave the green light.

Del Negro said by the time he received the clearance, the game was in the first overtime. Noah was on the bench when New Jersey's Brook Lopez converted an offensive rebound to tie the game at the end of regulation. The Nets eventually won in double overtime.

Del Negro said Tuesday that what happened on March 30 did not affect his mindset on Friday.

"There's a process involved in [limiting Noah's time]," Del Negro said. "Joakim is a competitor, and he wants to be out there all of the time.

"But we have to think big picture. He's a young player, has a serious injury, and you want to protect him, even from himself. I think we handled that right."

ESPNChicago.com's Nick Friedell contributed to this story.