Bulls heading to Miami with 99-93 win over Nets


May 5

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

This has been a fabulous season for the Bulls; really, one of the best in franchise history. No, it’s not likely to end with any of those parades or rallies, though you never want to say never with this group, and you don’t want to go comparing them to the great Michael Jordan championship teams of the 1990’s. It’s a team only now going to the Eastern Conference semifinals starting in Miami Monday after Saturday’s Game 7 99-93 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.

But this season and this team is special and one to embrace perhaps as much as any because of what they didn’t have, and what they then did, especially Saturday in Brooklyn.

“I think they’ve shown it all season,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau in yet another terrific coaching job. “I see them every day. I know they have the belief. We’ve dealt with adversity all year. Our team has the belief that we can win every night. We’ve been short handed and guys have stepped up.”

That barely expresses not only what the Bulls have done, but how satisfying it was to witness, how this Bulls group serves perhaps as a model and inspiration for sports, or even beyond.

They lose their best player, the former league MVP for the season. They get a 3-1 lead in the first round series against the Nets, who feature four of five starters who have been All Stars, and then lose their point guard, Kirk Hinrich, to a severe calf injury. Then they lose the player Thibodeau calls the glue that holds the team together, Luol Deng, with a serious infection that required several days in the hospital.

Joakim Noah

They’re playing an elimination game with three players who came into the season on minimum contracts and a rookie who barely played all season. Their center, Joakim Noah, missed 12 of the last 16 games with plantar fasciitis so severe he doubted before Game 1 he could even play in the series.

I talked with legendary Hall of Fame coach Dr. Jack Ramsay before the game and he said, “It borders on a miracle there even is a seventh game.”

To the Nets as well even as they had fallen behind so badly. But in coming back against the ailing and infirm Bulls and winning in Chicago in Game 6, the Nets believed the series was theirs. Gerald Wallace and Andray Blatche said they were the better team. More talented, sure with USA Basketball players like Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, a center many have called the best in the East this season, Brook Lopez. Johnson said the Nets would be a better matchup for the defending champion Heat.

But great contests are not necessarily won because you have more talent, but because you have more of the stuff of champions even if that may not be in your immediate future. Because you compete harder, expend and extend more. It’s all so hazy with the clichés about who wants it more and toughness and vitality and determination and desire.

But it presents itself in the ball you grab when the other guy seems in better position, the play you make despite your lack of size or speed, the commitment even when the other guy is more famous and celebrated and nobody much thinks you have enough of the right stuff.

“You’re facing really good teams (in the playoffs),” said Thibodeau. “The talent part is usually comparable. Then it comes down to the intangibles, the loose balls, the effort plays, maybe the ability to get to a ball to tip or deflect, whatever it might be to create the extra possession. Most often these games are going to come down to one or two possessions. That’s usually what separates from winning and losing. You want to make as many winning plays as you can throughout the course of the game. I think you have to be mentally tough and physically tough.”

It’s why you embrace a team like these Bulls, why this season is so special no matter the result. Because all you can really ask for or hope from a team you support, from anyone you care about, really, is to give everything they can and then no matter the result you can walk away proud.

This season has been filled with disappointments, the injuries piling up, several blowout losses, never any winning streak of consequence, losses to some of the poorest teams in the NBA. But yet also some towering highlights, like stopping Miami’s historic winning streak, several big wins over the Knicks, taking out the Lakers and in the last seconds the Celtics. And done so with the most likely of contributions, like the most game winning shots from Marco Belinelli, the team lead in double/doubles from the durable Carlos Boozer, shocking statistical milestones from Joakim Noah like a 30 and 23 game and a triple double with blocks and right on to that stunning fourth quarter save in Game 4 of this series by Nate Robinson.

Perhaps you suffered your share of disappointments watching this Bulls team, though they carry with them a spirit one hopes for in sports and too rarely sees.

“Impressive win by the Bulls. Noah is a beast,” was the tweet from Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki after the game.

Yes, the NBA world is taking notice.

This is special and impressive stuff.

It began with Noah, who finished with 24 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks, five on Lopez, the fifth player ever with that varied a line and first since Kevin Garnett in 2004.

And it was less expressed vocally, though Noah did confidently declare the Bulls would win after the Game 6 loss, than in action. By the end of the first quarter without Hinrich and Deng, their two best perimeter defenders once again, Noah had 10 points and five offensive rebounds, the Bulls with a 29-25 lead on the way to a shocking 61-44 halftime edge, a catch us if you can message. Yes, the Bulls would play defense. But they’d also do what was needed. Noah wasn’t supposed to be a scorer. So if he could score, why not, well, Marquis Teague and Daequan Cook and Nazr Mohammed, some of the stars of a 32-19 second quarter that defined the game.

The Bulls were the team that couldn’t score. OK, take a look at them now.

“Jo, what he did tonight there are not a whole lot of words to show the heart and toughness and desire and will and dedication to the team,” said Mohammed, the wily veteran of a pair of NBA Finals. “That type of stuff makes him someone you want to play with, knowing a guy has your back and no matter the situation is going to play. You want to play with guys like that. You hate to put all the pressure on him, but we desperately needed that. Missing Lu and Kirk and D. Rose, Game 7 on the road against a great team you need a great game from someone. He stepped up and answered the call.”

The Bulls got some other terrific efforts, like Marco Belinelli with 24 points and the four clinching free throws in the last 29 seconds after the Nets desperately were within five with 1:17 left.

Carlos Boozer

Boozer had 17 points and seven rebounds, three big ones down the stretch in the fourth. Jimmy Butler went all 48 minutes for the second consecutive game and defense so difficult on Williams that the All Star guard noted afterward how the change from Robinson guarding him took him out of plays. Robinson added 12 and a bench this season with so many guys out was able to do what a bench last season with so many guys out in the playoffs against a lower seeded team wasn’t able to do.

Still, it was the inspiration of Noah, tipping in a Boozer miss as the Bulls bolted out 9-4, quieting the home crowd, crossing over Lopez on a drive and score, hitting jump shots, finding buddy Taj Gibson open for a baseline jumper to close the first quarter with that 29-25 lead.

This was a game the Nets were supposed to have, and they came into it a bit like that, strutting and apparently having called in their South Beach restaurant reservations. This Bulls team has been underestimated before. You make the mistake to overlook them no matter who they have playing.

“They beat us to too many loose balls and they got a lot of offensive rebounds,” said a somber Williams afterward. “Noah was killing us on the boards today. They came at us and we didn’t match their intensity. It’s tough the way they guard me. Jimmy on me (yes, they know his name now). He’s taller and a more athletic defender. When I do
pick and rolls, they bring two or three guys over. I have to get rid of the ball. When we won Game 6, we felt like this was our series and they came out and played a great game. Noah is a warrior. He battled through his injuries. He had a monster game and we really had no answer for him down low tonight.”

You don’t usually consider Noah in that class, or put him in the same sentence with the great ones. Not with the tornado shot, the flailing hook shots, the long gait that makes him look like he’s had plantar fasciitis his entire life. Few look less like a pro athlete; perhaps no one is as unique as a competitor, player and leader.

Noah knew what the Bulls needed after that tough Game 6 loss when the trainers were asking players to take a number. Sure, Noah said, Game 7 was in the bag. Hey, what else do you say? It hardly looked good as ambulances were coming for Bulls players.

“We had just lost two in a row,” noted Noah. “I felt like we were going through a lot with Lu being out. He’s been a warrior for us all year. I know how hard it must be for him to sit out a big game like this (Thibodeau said he and Hinrich, of course, are day to day).

“I just wanted our team to be confident and believe we could get it done,” said Noah. “That’s why I said that.

“Before this series I did not know if I was going to be able to play,” said Noah, who ended his media session thanking all his Bulls and private trainers and even the osteopath from the French national team in his litany of more than a dozen different sorts of treatments he undertook to get to where he’s playing 40-plus minute games. “I could barely walk. To be in this situation now and win a Game 7 like this in front of my family in Brooklyn (where he attended high school). I’ll remember this for the rest of my life.”

Marco Belinelli

So will everyone who cares about and follows the Bulls. The Bulls never had won a seventh game on the road in the playoffs. Ever. The last time they won a road elimination game was in 1989 with Michael Jordan’s dramatic shot in Cleveland. The season began with the hope the playoff lineup would be Rose, Deng, Richard Hamilton, Noah and Boozer with Hinrich sixth man. Instead, it was Noah, Boozer, Belinelli, Robinson and Butler with Marquis Teague and Daequan Cook in the middle of the big second quarter that in the end was just enough.

“I thought our bench in the second quarter was phenomenal,” said Thibodeau. “I thought Marquis, Nazr, Taj, Daequan, when they went in there they got it going for us and everybody. Jimmy Butler 48 minutes, Joakim, Nate. It was a total team effort.

“We have great veteran leadership,” said Thibodeau. “There’s a lot of guys that make us a team of leaders. I always say to them I want a team of leaders. I don’t
want one particular guy. I want everybody leading and I look at how Carlos and Joakim set the tone, Jimmy (Butler) did his job and guarded multiple positions, Nate was terrific. Marco was fantastic. With Lu going down and Lu is such a big part of our team we needed people to step up. I think with the start of the season with Derrick being out we knew we couldn’t replace Derrick individually and our only chance to have success was to do it collectively. I think that helped set the tone for our team for the year. Other guys have gone down, but there’s a belief that the next guy will get up, get in there and get the job done. I think our team has that mentality.”

No one ever is going to laugh or roll their eyes when Thibodeau says they have enough to win.

Thibodeau hasn’t been known as a coach to extend the bench and go to his most inexperienced players. But he did just that Saturday, and the results were spectacular: Cook with a big three and finding Noah with a pass for a slam dunk in that amazing second quarter that included a 19-6 close. Teague drove for a layup score and followed that with a jumper, and no Nets pressure could shake him.

“I just wanted to go out there and compete,” said Teague, who averaged eight minutes during the season playing in about half the games. ”Just being aggressive, rebounding and playing defense. Game 7 of the playoffs. It doesn’t get any bigger. I’d rather play now.”

And then the starters were back in to close the second quarter as Noah had another crossover move for a score and back to back with a hesitation move for a basket. Joakim Noah? Boozer got a back door cut for a slam dunk on a Robinson pass to close the half ahead by 17 as the arena fell silent. All except for Noah’s screams of delight.

“I’m just trying to win the game; I’m just trying to win really bad,” said Noah.

“Unbelievable,” even Thibodeau enthused about Noah. “There are plays that he makes that are great multiple effort type plays where he can get quickly to a second or third jump. Very few guys can do that. We were also asking him to do a lot, basically be everywhere on our defense. Defend the pick and roll, sprint back to the basket, close out, block out, pursue the ball. In every aspect of our defense whether defensive transition, catch and shoot, low post, pick and roll, he’s exerting a lot of energy, he’s in unbelievable shape and he can make plays that very few can.”

The Nets were now embarrassed, and they showed pride and perhaps that they didn’t have non refundable fares to Cancun. They came out flying after halftime, a Williams transition three, Lopez and Reggie Evans crashing the boards (they would end with a 43-40 edge), and Gerald Wallace with back to back threes that got the crowd back and the Nets back within 67-60 with just five minutes gone in the third quarter. That great first half for the Bulls just about gone.

“We know in the third quarter they were real aggressive,” said Belinelli. “Real aggressive defense. They try to steal every ball. But we want to win so bad. People say before the season we don’t even make the playoffs. We won’t go to the second round. We have the motivation to show what we can do.”

Which was never to do the expected. The Bulls would surely lose this game now. Boozer got his fourth foul midway through the third and Gibson was struggling again. Belinelli was losing Wallace on defense, sinking too deep to help to get back. Certainly, Joe Johnson would get going (he didn’t in a John Starkesque two of 14), and how long could Noah hold off Lopez, leading this series in scoring.

But Butler made a three on another one of those Belinelli skip passes he does so well with Thibodeau now turning to Belinelli to run more offense when they weren’t going through Noah at the high post. Robinson made a finger roll, Belinelli dunked on a great Noah pass on a back cut and Noah willed in a driving left handed runner that put the Bulls back ahead 78-70.

Noah then faked a handoff and drove for a score after Johnson finally made a three, and Noah then added another driving layup to close the third quarter to push the Bulls back ahead 82-75. The Bulls were outscored by 10, but it probably would have been tied going into the fourth had Noah—yes, Noah—not taken the initiative on offense.

“Joakim played probably the best game of the season at the right time,” said Robinson.

And then it was 12 minutes left, the home crowd demanding one more run, the desperation showing for the Nets. Was the coach’s job on the line? Not only their season, but, really, you are home for a seventh game and they have half their team and you’re going to lose?

But the Bulls defense stiffened.

The Bulls seemed weary with a pair of early turnovers, a Butler missed layup and one for Belinelli. But the Nets couldn’t score, either, as Noah got Lopez again with a block. Midway through the quarter Williams ran into a three after Teague missed in close, and suddenly the Nets were within 86-81 with 6:13 left. The time seemed right for them to steal this one back.

“Everytime there’s a loose ball we think it’s our ball,” said Noah. “We knew we needed to win all the hustle play to be able to compete.”

And, predictably, it was Noah with one of the biggest to stop the Nets’ run again.

Robinson had made a 17 footer for an 88-81 lead with 5:12 left and Noah then pushed Lopez into an off balance shot and got the rebound. Robinson then drove and missed, but Noah maneuvered Lopez out of the way for the ball, got it back to Robinson who drove to break down the defense and threw back to Belinelli for the three to make it 91-81 with 4:52 left.

“That was Jo,” said Belinelli. “His energy. He was a warrior. We are just a great team. I love to be here.”

The Nets were trying, but it was only that. Noah yet again scored on a drive in a two man game with Robinson, and Belinelli probably clinched it with a one-on-one move and driving score at the 24 second clock for a 95-88 lead with 2:01 left after the Nets again had gotten within five. Boozer dug out a big rebound on a Wallace miss, and the Nets eventually had to foul and Belinelli made all four to get where they’d been before but few imagined they could be this time.

“So many guys stepped up today,” said Noah, ever the teammate and most happy when the credit is spread around. That’s what it’s all about, being able to share these moments in the locker room with your teammates, everyone’s got ice, everybody is tired, everybody contributed.”

It’s Miami in the next round starting Monday, the defending champs, the ultimate test.

“That’s our rivalry,” said Gibson. “Words can’t express how bad we want to beat them.”

There no doubt will be plenty. But perhaps not as many as this Bulls team deserves. There have been many better; many better in their own building. But few, if any, like this group who transcend their circumstances and frailties. They shouldn’t be where they are, and few can fully explain how they got there. But it’s a joy to watch how they do it and enjoy the ride. There haven’t been many like them or many seasons like this one.

What do you think? Leave a comment below: