Noah plants a foot on Nets to even series


Apr 23

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Joakim Noah didn’t have the most points in the Bulls 90-82 win over the Brooklyn Nets Monday to even their playoff series at 1-1. The Nets’ Brook Lopez had 21.

Noah didn’t have the most rebounds. That was teammate Carlos Boozer with 12 along with 13 points while Luol Deng had his own double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Noah didn’t have the most assists, which went to the Nets’ Deron Williams with 10, though also with just eight points on one of nine shooting. Lopez had more blocks. Kirk Hinrich had more steals. Deng made more shots.

But Noah, whose playing in the series was in doubt a few days ago because of his severe plantar fasciitis in his right foot, stood figuratively the tallest, if actually the shakiest. And with nine fourth quarter points and six rebounds in one of the more magnificent performances in his career, Noah gave the Bulls life and hope in this series which continues Thursday in the United Center.

Joakim Noah

“Joakim has given us everything he has,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who had a terrific response game plan to the Nets Game 1 win. “We’re obviously a lot better with him on the floor. His timing is not quite there and he is doing a lot of it on will power. Obviously, Jo has done a lot of great things for us these last three years. The fact is he’s really willing it now.

“He hasn’t practiced a lot since the All-Star break (missing 12 of the last 15 regular season games),” noted Thibodeau. “We shut him down quite a bit of time. He’s willing it. That’s what he’s doing.”

Where there’s a will, there’s Jo.

This really is terrific stuff on the part of Noah, who offered a tight smile and “It feels great,” when asked about his foot after the game. But Noah didn’t look very good in 13 uneven minutes and four points in Game 1. And it wasn’t a great first half for him Monday as he was scoreless in 13 minutes with three rebounds while Lopez had 14 points as the Nets had recovered from the Bulls leading the entire first half to within 47-46 at halftime.

The Bulls had been outplayed and out thought in the Nets 106-89 Game 1 win, an unusually passive Bulls team taking the first hit and basically saying, “That you, sir, may I have another.”

“Once Thibs got into us in that film room we couldn’t wait to get on the court,” said Taj Gibson. “The way they were cutting us to pieces on back cuts and into the lane. We never give up points like that in the paint (56 in Game 1, 30 in Game 2). We wanted to lock in and take away those points.

“He was really laying into guys,” added Gibson. “I never saw him so inflamed. He was really calling out guys, letting guys know what they need to do. Everybody had to go out there and dominate their matchup. Go out there will full effort. He really challenged guys the last couple of days.”

What did Deng think of that?

“I missed that part,” Deng quipped. “I was downloading some new songs the whole time Thibs was talking.”

But it’s way more than yelling. There’s no Rockne speeches in pro ball. You can demand, but then you better step up with a plan. Thibodeau did after he didn’t acquit himself all that well in Game 1, either.

At the last minute before Game 1, Noah said he could play, which changed the rotation and seemed to flummox everyone. Noah had a time limit of about 14 minutes, the same as the last two regular season games, but he couldn’t do much. The starters, nevertheless, mostly held their own early. But when Noah went out, Thibodeau opted to go small with Gibson. Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo prefers a big lineup with Lopez and Reggie Evans and then Andray Blatche and Kris Humphries.

The Bulls began to get overwhelmed as Nazr Mohammed fell out and played just six minutes. Thibodeau went for Richard Hamilton, who didn’t play at all in Game 2, and none from among Hamilton, Jimmy Butler and Kirk Hinrich were making shots as the Nets began to pour it on. So for offense, Thibodeau then opted for Boozer at center and Deng at power forward and the Nets buried the Bulls.

So that would change.

“Size at the rim, size at the rim,” Thibodeau said Monday when asked about Mohammed’s strong Game 2 with eight points in just under 18 minutes. “I think you need those things. It’s difficult when you downsize. Offensively it helps. Aesthetically, it looks better because you have another perimeter skill guy on the floor. But I think defensively you sacrifice a lot.”

That’s not the Thibodeau way. Who was that guy pacing the sideline in Game 1? So Thibodeau came up with a beautiful response to the Nets.

He went with more size, which was made more palatable as Noah could play a bit over 25 minutes. The big men with Boozer playing his second straight 40-plus minute game and giving backside help as well as he’s done all season stayed tight in the paint, making the Bulls’ interior shell almost impenetrable.

It’s always a priority, but the Bulls have been inconsistent in recent weeks. You have to give up something. So it would be the Lopez 18 footer. He did hit a few, especially in a late second quarter run. But you won’t lose that way.

The Bulls also had a major adjustment for Deron Williams, who was terrific cutting them up in Game 1. Hinrich played stifling defense so much so Williams spent almost as much time complaining to the officials as LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. I mentioned that to one Bull and he said it was more.

As Hinrich was frustrating a flummoxed Williams, who has played well of late, the Bulls interior big men constantly showed off the pick and roll. So every time Williams came off a screen there was Noah or Gibson or Mohammed there providing a wall of humanity. It’s not so much a double team as the Bulls defense is more a stunt and recover to the shooter. But the big men stayed a bit longer to make sure Williams couldn’t penetrate, where he scores or breaks down the defense and involves teammates. Limit that and the Nets struggle.

“I didn’t play well,” said Williams, who delighted in trying to embarrass the Bulls with a backward dunk late in Game 1. “I’m not going to play like this again. They did some different things. They tried to keep me on one side of the court. They definitely stayed with me longer on pick and rolls and tried to trap me a little bit. I’ll look at the film and see where I can improve. I didn’t go to the basket enough. I don’t think I attacked enough tonight. I missed some shots early, which kind of made me passive. The way they were playing me, I just felt like I was getting doubled so I wasn’t going to try force bad shots.”

So apparently he is planning to in Game 3.

Still with all that, a terrific game plan being carried out well, aggressive comeback offense from Deng and a smothering third quarter in which the Nets shot two of 19 and the Bulls took a 69-57 lead after three and 73-59 early in the fourth quarter, here came the Nets rallying back in the fourth quarter with a 9-0 run to get within 73-68 on an Andray Blatche 16 footer with 7:55 left.

Through three quarters, Noah had just two points and four rebounds with four fouls and four turnovers in just under 18 minutes.

Time for one last run.

Perhaps one last stand to save the series.

Luol Deng

“No question about it,” said Noah. “Just being able to play in the playoffs is something I’ll never take for granted. And being able to do it in front of my loved ones and my family (Noah was raised in New York City and attended high school in Brooklyn), it’s something that’s really special to me.”

And Noah is very special to the Bulls.

At a dead ball with 7:39 left on a Joe Johnson foul and the Bulls hanging onto a five-point lead and the home fans screaming for cheese pizza and a victory, Thibodeau subbed in Noah, and Noah turned up the heat.

“I hadn’t played in a long time,” said Noah. “I hadn’t played in almost a month before the playoffs. I think I’m just trying to get into my rhythm. I missed a lot of open shots. I’ve just got to feel more comfortable. I feel overall our team played passionate basketball. That’s a plus because it was ugly in that Game 1.”

It was beautiful this time.

First Deng got caught up in his dribble and lined a diagonal cross court pass Aaron Rodgers would be proud of for a Noah dunk to stop the Nets run and make it 75-68 Bulls with 6:54 left.

Kris Humphries missed from in close and then came perhaps the play of the game as Noah went flying out of bounds to save a Boozer miss, flipping it backward to Hinrich who as he was also falling out of bounds got it across to Nate Robinson for a three and 78-68 Bulls lead with 6:15 left.

“Kirk baby,” enthused Deng. “It was like the Baby Bulls days. Kirk’s defense (on Williams) was great. He was huge.”

“Kirkie werkie,” exclaimed Noah without giving the spelling. ”He’s a warrior. I’m so happy he’s back on this team. To me, he really represents what Chicago Bulls basketball is all about. Especially right now. He was pretty hurt (in Game 1 with a thigh injury). To come out and play defense the way he played and to see the way he ran the team, I’m really happy for Cap. When he’s on his game we are hard to beat.”

Though it was hardly over. The Nets certainly have more skilled and higher level talents than the Bulls. The Bulls have to, as Thibodeau likes to say, make them feel his team. Pressure them; make their basketball life a bit uneasy. Williams is a physical, tough guard. But guys like that often don’t like the reciprocal treatment. Certainly Joe Johnson. In the end, the Nets would shoot 35.4 percent, be outrebounded 44-39, make four of 21 threes, get outscored inside 42-30 and get two of 16 combined from Williams and Gerald Wallace.

Noah was hardly done in the most crucial time in the game after Deng then pressured Johnson into an air ball.

Deng, who admitted he was more passive than he’d have liked in trying to feel his way into Game 1, was aggressive and physical Monday, a beacon that lit the way early for the Bulls with eight first quarter shots and a team best 11 points by halftime. Plus, he was back smothering Wallace into another personal crisis of confidence.

“Last game, I thought we didn’t play or execute well,” said Deng. “Our defense wasn’t great. When they made runs tonight we had guys make big shots to answer. That was the difference. I felt last game my game plan was to try to get everyone involved. Tonight it was the opposite. I tried to get myself going and be aggressive and in the second half it was about making big plays and we did that.”

Noah then went back on the boards hard to get a Deng miss for a putback and 80-68 Bulls lead with 5:33 left. But the Nets have been an explosive team of late, scoring at least 100 points in nine of their last 11 games before Monday.

Johnson walked into a three, Jimmy Butler missed his answer, C.J. Watson, who had another good game with 10 points in battling Robinson, scored on a driving layup, Hinrich missed a runner, and Johnson pulled up for another three with 4:12 left to bring the Nets within 80-76.

Marco Belinelli

“We realize they kicked out butts,” said Boozer. “We wanted to come back with a chip on our shoulders and we played out game, grind out defensive, hard hat on defense like we did in previous years.”

Such a good overall game and plan, and it seemed to be slipping away down the stretch.

Boozer missed on a drive. Noah got the ball and passed out to Robinson, who missed a three. But Johnson took off quickly with the ball looking to get the momentum back and within one and took a quick transition three that missed. It stalled the Nets as they would foul Hinrich. He made two on a poor free throw shooting night for the Bulls when they were 13 of 23.

Lopez scored as the Bulls collapsed on Williams and it was one of the few times the help was late, though it was Robinson stuck along the baseline. That made it 82-78 Bulls with 3:18 left.

Deng then hit a tough jumper over Johnson, Blatche missed again on a drive and Noah made another huge play taking the ball strong past Lopez for a layup and 86-78 Bulls lead with 1:58 left that left Lopez furiously stomping his foot and the air coming out of the expectant home crowd in a Dodgers “Wait until next year” moment as the Bulls were about to steal the home court edge.

“Just found a way,” said Noah. “Tonight we showed a lot of resilience. We came out flat in Game 1. It was a great team effort. We’ve been doing that all year. We’ve dealt with a lot of adversity. To come out in the biggetst moment of our season and play the way we played is huge.”

Williams then fired up a wild three that missed and Watson added another errant one after a Robinson miss that began to empty the new arena as the Bulls closed it out with free throws and perhaps the most impressive 11 points and 10 rebounds game you’ll ever see, that being from Noah. And then Noah put the exclamation point on it all with Lopez trying one last dash at the rim with 52.9 seconds left and Noah getting all ball and the block and a enthusiastic statement that the Bulls are back in this series.

“Just trying to affect the game, affect winning,” said Noah. “Just find a way. I wasn’t thinking too much. Just hoopin’. Trying to make plays. I’m just happy my foot is holding up. Just being able to win in Brooklyn in front of family and friends. It feels good.

“It’s a whole other ballgame out there (Chicago),” Noah went on. ”Not even comparable. This is a great place to play basketball. But this is new fans. They’ve been doing it a long time over there in Chitown. They’re going to be ready on Thursday. It’s going to be a battle. We’ll be ready; they’ll be ready. It’s playoff basketball. It’s what it’s all about.

“After a win in the playoffs, you’re sky high and feeling good about yourself,” agreed Noah. “You’ve got to stay focused and know a lot of basketball is left. Anything can happen. Sometimes you play well, sometimes not. It’s how you deal with situations. We played like (crap) the first game. Now it’s on us to be ready for Game 3.”

The Bulls were ready for Game 2 as well, setting their defense, playing strong if not petty. The Nets missed eight of their first 10 shots, which gave the Bulls a chance to execute their plan. Make sure the Nets don’t run on long rebounds, slow the game and have them walk it up more, stunt on Williams and don’t let him waltz into the lane, push out Lopez and give him the jumpers. Make the paint off limits.

“Lopez, just try to frustrate him,” said Gibson, who made all three of his shots. “Play physical, take away a lot of easy baskets. He was diving to the rim a lot. We crowded him and tried to frustrate him. Be aggressive. Like Thibs said, he can deal with us getting cheap fouls as long as we play hard.”

But it was more than that. The bench was animated. Reserves stood at the jump ball and until the first basket like they do in Oklahoma City. Derrick Rose was constantly talking with teammates and gesturing about plays and positioning.

“The bench was really into it,” said Gibson. “You could tell everybody was ready. The bench was celebrating every time. It felt like a street tournament game where we were chanting on the side. We really wanted to get this win.”

Once in control of the pace, the Bulls got a 20-17 lead after one quarter as when Nazr Mohammed replaced Noah the Bulls were staying big this time to counter the Nets, and Mohammed came up big again.

“Just trying to go out there and follow the game plan,” said Mohammed. “Take my opportunities, set screen, play defense. I don’t have a special mindset. Go out there and do what I need to do.”

That included a three-point play and then back to back scores as the Bulls took that first quarter lead. Marco Belinelli had a nice spurt as the Bulls opened a 30-23 lead early in the second. But then Lopez made three consecutive outside shots. The Bulls didn’t overreact, however even after Watson snuck into the corner for a half ending three to bring the Nets within one.

But the Bulls snuffed the Nets in the third quarter with Boozer and Mohammed doing the scoring and even combining for a nice score on a Mohammed dump down pass as the Nets fired blanks. And when the Nets finally found the nets again, there was Noah to make the net gain for the Bulls.

“One thing about plantar fasciitis, once you get warmed up you feel a little better,” said Gibson. “I had it. He’s a warrior and if not for him I don’t know if we would have gotten this win.”

I was sure about that.

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