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Noah saves Bulls from flood of defeats
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 9
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Derrick Rose scored 24 points, Kirk Hinrich scored 23 points, Luol Deng scored 22 points. The Bulls Thursday defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers, playing without a resting LeBron James, 109-108.
But it was Joakim Noah who loaded the Bulls on his ship of key plays and saved the Bulls season as they’re now tied with the Toronto Raptors at 38-40 for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Win their remaining four games and the Bulls are in.
“We learned a lesson (Tuesday),” said Noah, who finished with 17 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks. “On any given day anyone can beat you. (Andrew) Bogut got hurt and we lost that one. Just because a star isn’t playing doesn’t mean you can’t lose. Your natural reaction is to let your guard down and I don’t think we did.”
Although a Cavs guard, Mo Williams, almost took down the Bulls season with 35 points, including four three pointers in the last 5:24. But Noah saved the Bulls season, at least for now, with a series of offensive and defensive plays.
1. With 4:29 left after the Cavs had just hit three three pointers in just over a minute to take a 100-96 lead, Noah drives hard and scores a layup through a closing Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anthony Parker and is fouled. Noah makes the free throw.
2. With 3:05 left, the Bulls collapse on Williams driving the lane and he pitches out to Jamario Moon, who was four of six in the third quarter, and Moon missed with Deng running at him. Noah got the rebound.
3. With 2:41 left, Taj Gibson, who had a poor offensive night but made three big defensive plays down the stretch, blocked an Antawn Jamison drive from behind as Jamison came up limping. He was not seriously hurt. Williams then shot a three on top with Hinrich playing tough defense, as he would on every key late possession. Williams missed and Noah was there for another big defensive rebound even though the Cavs were playing big with Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao.
4. With 1:45 left and the score tied at 105 after another Williams three, Noah got a Rose pass above the free throw line about 17 feet away and didn’t hesitate. The United Center sellout crowd actually let out an audible groan. Noah was shooting! Now? Noah drained the jumper for a 107-105 lead.
“I’m not going to lie,” said Noah, who was asked about it by a reporter who said it appeared Noah had a steel groin area to take that shot in those circumstances.
Noah thanked the reporter, who will remain nameless but it rhymed with David Schuster. Noah said he appreciated the image.
“I’m really proud of that jump shot right there,” Noah continued. “I think a lot of times people tell you what you can and cannot do. It just feels good because I know I work really hard on my game and it felt good to hit a jump shot like that.”
5. With 1:21 left after still another Williams three from the deep left corner with two defenders on him and with left Dancin’ LeBron working the area behind the Cavs bench to give the Cavs the lead again, Rose drove and drew his usual double team and the ball bounced off the backboard. Noah beat Ilgauskas inside and tipped the ball in for a 109-108 Bulls lead.
“I was just trying to get a hand on it,” said Noah. “I didn’t want them to get a quick rebound. I wanted to be aggressive.”
6. With 1.9 seconds left after Deng missed two free throws with a one point lead, the Bulls trapped Williams, who dropped the ball to Varegao at the free throw line. Varejao hesitated when he was open.
Deng and Gibson then closed and Varejao threw up an off balance shot. Moon was waiting inside along the baseline and grabbed the rebound and was about to dunk it.
“If he wouldn’t have blocked it, I was going to dunk it, no question,” said Moon. “I thought I was there by myself. So I was going to grab it and put it back and by the time I was ready to bring it forward he threw it out of bounds.”
“I just remember him up in the air with the ball in his hand and I was happy I got a piece of it,” said Noah.
But Noah wasn’t done.
Rose got the rebound, and, like Deng just before him, he missed both free throws with 1.3 seconds left. The Cavs still had a timeout.
7. With a second left Noah went up for Rose’s second missed and knocked it into the backcourt to end the game.
“I knew there was a second left,” said Noah, who was as cool down the stretch as the bucket of ice that is his regular post game companion these days so his feet are OK to perform more feats like Thursday. “I just tried to get a hand on it to end the game.”
It was a terrific game, more fun, Noah agreed, if you win.
But also still just one.
“We’ve got to be on edge and realize even the worst team in the NBA can beat us,” Noah said about the upcoming Nets.
Since they have already this season, by the way.
There were 20 lead changes and four ties, including six fourth quarter lead changes. Sure, James and his nearly 30 per game average didn’t play as the Cavs had clinched home court throughout the playoffs. But Williams, who usually stands in the corner waiting for James passes, was brilliant. Jamison added 23 on his usual odd assortment of floaters and runners.
After that gruesome, slowdown, defensive meat grinder of a game Tuesday against the Bucks, it was an entertaining, more open game with Deng (10 rebounds) and Rose (10 assists) having double/doubles and Hinrich’s shooting touch returning with eight of 12 and three of four three pointers.
“We have that (control of our own playoff destiny). It’s the first time we’ve had it back in a while,” said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro, who made the right moves with Brad Miller scoring six in the fourth and having Noah ready for the stretch with his measured minutes. “We have to understand that and be sharper the next four games. We have a back to back (Friday in New Jersey) and a big game Sunday (in Toronto).
“Joakim with the tipins and the plays down the stretch he made, he was fantastic,” said Del Negro. “It comes down to stepping up and knocking them down. We were attacking more and Kirk played great defense. And a couple of bounces went our way, which was good for a change.”
It was back to the way the Bulls were playing before Noah’s leave with his plantar fasciitis, sort of when the Bulls were sinking because of Noah’s arch. Perhaps the defense was not as solid, especially on the pick and roll as the Bulls have had difficulty integrating the new players with so many injuries. But they outrebounded the Cavs 44-36, shot 51.8 percent and, at least in the second half, held the Cavs to 40.8 percent shooting after a hot Cavs start.
The teams were tied at 28 after one and the Bulls led 60-56 at halftime with both shooting above 54 percent.
The Bulls got up on the Cavs by 12 in the third as they pushed up their defense with Hinrich getting a pair of steals for scores on strong overplays in the backcourt. But after the Bulls were leading 76-64 midway through the third, Moon and Williams got going and the Cavs went into the fourth trailing just 82-80.
“Even without LeBron, we gave them a show,” said Williams.
It was a terrific finish for the TNT audience after the Bulls awful national appearance against Miami last month. The Bulls did attack the basket to take a 96-89 lead with seven minutes left, Rose capping off the run with a three point play blowing by Williams. The Cavs had been taking advantage of Rose with Williams until Hinrich switched, and Cleveland didn’t use Parker much with Williams so hot.
But after the Bulls got that lead, Moon hit a three and Williams the first two of his four in less than five minutes and it had to be Noah to the rescue.
It doesn’t matter who we play,” said Williams of the first round. “We have to play somebody. It’s either them or Toronto. They’ll fight it out. Whoever gets us, we’ll be ready to play. There’s no secrets to no team in the league. They know how good we are. LeBron or not tonight, I don’t think this game changed their minds about us. They know we’re good.”
“They’re pretty good,” agreed Noah. “We’re really looking forward to playing them in the playoffs.”