CLEVELAND (AP) — Already despised and cast as a villain in Cleveland, Bulls center Joakim Noah may now be Public Enemy No. 1 in Boston.
With a day off to recuperate after guarding Cavaliers behemoth big man Shaquille O'Neal, Noah decided to take a shot at Kevin Garnett, calling the Celtics forward "a dirty player" for throwing an elbow at Miami's Quentin Richardson in their NBA playoff opener.
Garnett connected with an elbow to Richardson's face during a sideline skirmish in the final minute of Boston's Game 1 win on Saturday night. Garnett, who was called for two technicals and ejected, was suspended for Tuesday's Game 2 without pay.
Before the suspension was announced, Noah said Garnett deserves whatever punishment is coming.
"I'm going to say it: He's a dirty player," Noah said Sunday after he and his Chicago teammates practiced at Quicken Loans Arena in preparation for Monday's Game 2 against the Cavaliers. "He's always swinging elbows, man. I'm hurting right now because of an elbow he threw. It's unbelievable. He's a dirty player. It's one thing to be competitive and compete and all that.
"But don't be a dirty player, man. He's a dirty player."
Richardson was walking over toward fallen Celtics forward Paul Pierce, who had gone down near Miami's bench, when he got bumped by Garnett. The two exchanged words before others joined in and TV replays showed Garnett landing an elbow to Richardson's chin as players from both teams pushed and shoved.
Noah's opinion was that Garnett intended to strike Richardson.
"He knows what he's doing," Noah said. "It's messed up. It's wrong. It's not right. I shouldn't even be talking about this stuff. It's crazy."
Noah's pointed criticism of Garnett made their way to Boston coach Doc Rivers, who was amused by the timing of the remarks.
"Noah?" Rivers said. "Noah's in this series now? Well, I have no comment. If Noah had said that last year (when the Bulls played the Celtics in the playoffs) I would have had a comment, but since he's in Cleveland and dealing with that, I think I'm just going to let him focus on Shaq and that group right now."
The Cavs have had their own run-ins with Garnett and the Celtics in the past. Earlier this month, LeBron James and Garnett got into a heated exchange in the closing minutes.
James, though, refused to double team Garnett on Sunday.
"I've never called him a dirty player," James said. "I can only speak for myself."
The Bulls were in a playful mood as they regrouped following their 96-83 loss to the Cavaliers, whose interior size and cache of offensive weapons around James wore down Chicago in the best-of-seven series opener.
The Cavs were bolstered by the return of O'Neal, who missed Cleveland's final 23 regular-season games after tearing a thumb ligament but came back 20 pounds lighter and focused on winning his fifth title. O'Neal only scored 12 points, but he was a factor at both ends.
O'Neal got Noah into early foul trouble and Bulls backup center Brad Miller had a tough time too, getting dropped twice as O'Neal bulled his way to the hoop. After one encounter, Miller had to go to the locker room to clean up a bloody lip.
"It's not the first one I've gotten from him," said Miller, who has battled O'Neal for 12 years and has the scars to prove it. "He's still Shaq, but I tell all these guys all the time, you should have seen what he was like a few years ago. Every possession underneath, it was bang, bang."
Noah had an ice bag strapped to his back after practice, an injury he blamed on Garnett but one that's unlikely to improve much against the massive O'Neal, who made Noah look silly with a baseline spin move and dunk. O'Neal looked fresh after missing 23 games.
"Hopefully he wears himself down. He's tough, man," said Noah, admitting there's a physical toll to be paid when O'Neal is your assignment. "It's as hard as it looks."
Noah mimicked Chicago coach Vinny Del Negro's assertion that the Bulls have to do a better job rebounding. The Cavs had a 50-38 advantage and got 13 offensive boards, leading to easy baskets and extra possessions.
"It was a great learning experience for us, and this team has a good vibe," Noah said. "They are a very good team. But we want to come out and hopefully get a win on Monday."
The Bulls and Cavaliers didn't exchange any flagrant elbows, but there was plenty of other extracurricular activities in Game 1.
Miller and James got technicals after a hard foul. James jawed with Luol Deng and Noah was booed every time he touched the ball by Cleveland fans, who didn't appreciate him challenging James earlier this season for dancing on the sideline during a game. Then, as the playoffs approached, Noah proclaimed the Bulls were "going to try to shock the world" against the heavily favored Cavs.
Noah doesn't seem to mind being targeted by angry Cavs fans. They don't like him, and the feeling appears mutual.
His comments about Garnett could have helped soften his image and endear him to some Clevelanders, but then he decided to throw an elbow at their city.
"I don't know about Cleveland, man, there's nothing going on," Noah said when asked how he might spend the remainder of a chilly, cloudy day downtown. "It's bad."
AP Sports Writer Howard Ulman in Boston contributed to this report.