The Bulls snuck into the NBA playoffs on the final day of the regular season. Given the number of injuries and the amount of drama they went through during that 82-game gulag, that accomplishment was nothing short of amazing. However, their efforts merely earned them the right to face soon-to-be-MVP LeBron James and his league-best Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round.
That seemed like the postseason equivalent of a summary execution.
According to the script, the Bulls were supposed to roll over and die. Like bugs. After all, these playoffs are supposed to be the coronation of King James. That certainly appeared to be the case in Game 2, when the Bulls seemingly played as well as they could possibly play but were almost single-handedly beaten by a hot-shooting LeBron.
That was Chicago’s cue to give up.
But they didn’t. Joakim Noah said the Bulls were going to try to shock the world. Consider the world shocked, Jo. I don’t think even Nostradamus could have predicted this.
After a nearly perfect first half, the Bulls led by 11 points (56-45). With 7:52 left in the third quarter, Chicago pushed that lead to 21 (68-47) on a jumper by Taj Gibson. It was unbelievable. I was ready to pinch myself or slap some cold water in my face to make sure I hadn’t dozed off. But this was way beyond my wildest dreams.
Then the Cavaliers made their run.
Anthony Parker tricked Kirk Hinrich into fouling him on a three-point attempt and hit two of three at the line. LeBron endured 23 seconds of fantastic defense by Luol Deng before drilling a three-pointer as the shot clock expired. Mo Williams hit a free throw (thanks to a technical foul on Taj Gibson), a 21-footer, and then a three-pointer of his own. Then Anderson Varejao hit a couple free throws to cut the lead to single digits.
Suddenly, a blowout turned into a dogfight.
During the fourth quarter, LeBron very nearly took over the game. He scored 13 of his game-high 39 points and dished out 5 of his game-best 8 assists. At one point, James blew by Hinrich — who was face-guarding him for some crazy reason — for a dunk and a foul…which happened to be Noah’s fifth. Without Joakim in the game, the Cavaliers started to feast on the offensive boards like a pack of hungry jackals.
It seemed like there was no way the Bulls could hold them off.
But they did. Somehow or other, they did. Mind you, the final half minute nearly gave me an ulcer. Seriously, I’ll probably die five years earlier than I should have because of this game. The Bulls were leading 104-96 when Williams knocked down another triple. The Cavs were forced to foul Hinrich, who inexplicably bricked both free throws, which was especially stunning considering how hot his shooting was (see below). At the other end, Williams missed a three, but Cleveland came away with the offensive rebound, after which LeBron hit a three.
Now the Bulls led 104-102 with 10 seconds left.
The Cavaliers fouled Derrick Rose, who missed his first free throw and hit the second.
Now the Bulls led 105-103.
After a Cleveland timeout, some fantastic Bulls defense forced a pass to Varejao, the Cavs’ worst foul shooter. Deng immediately fouled him. Andy made the first but missed the second. Brad Miller came away with the rebound — thanks in part to a critical no-call on Noah (see below) — and was fouled. Brad put in both freebies.
Now the Bulls led 107-103 with six seconds left.
After a timeout, Williams hit a gut-check three-pointer. Oh, man.
Now the Bulls led 107-106 with three seconds left.
The Cavaliers fouled Deng, who hit his first free throw but (of course) missed his second. Count ’em: Four missed free throws by the Bulls down the stretch. All I can say is, thank God for Pepto-Bismol.
Now the Bulls led 108-106. Fortunately, the Cavs had no timeouts left. Even more fortunately, Anthony Parker rebounded Luol’s missed foul shot and had no time to find Lebron. Parker’s 42-foot fling was off the mark.
As Johnny “Red” Kerr might have said: Bulls win! Bulls win!
What a game.
Let’s make a list of the Chicago players who stepped up, shall we? First off, there was Derrick Rose, who scored a team-high 31 points (13-for-26) to go along with a team-best 7 assists. D-Rose made several tough shots — actually, they all seemed like tough shots — including at least three of his patented one-handed push shots. Derrick was beyond huge.
To me, his biggest play happened with 2:46 left in fourth quarter. The Cavaliers had been trapping Rose on pick and rolls for most of the second half, and then they sicced LeBron on him. Mind you, James is perhaps the most amazing physical specimen in NBA history. Nobody — not even Michael Jordan — has had his combination of explosive speed and sheer muscular power. But with the game on the line, even the mighty LeBron couldn’t stay in front of Rose, who slid past the presumed MVP and pulled up for a midrange jumper that put the Bulls up 98-92.
And let’s not forget about Captain Kirk, who netted 27 points by going 9-for-12 from the field and 4-for-4 from beyond the arc. There’s no way the Bulls would have won this game without Hinrich. He was absolutely indispensible. It’s always this way with Kirk, isn’t it? He’ll be quiet for a few games and everybody gets down on him, but he never stops playing, never quits competing.
Then there was Noah, who was limited to 33 minutes due to foul trouble but still finished with a game-high 15 rebounds to go along with 10 points, 5 assists, 2 blocks and a steal. And if the NBA gave out hockey assists — that is, passes that lead to an assist — Jo would have had several of those as well. Speaking of invisible stats, Noah also knocked the ball away from LeBron with just under a minute left in the fourth. Deng was credited with the steal, but it was Joakim’s active hands that made the play.
It’s also worth noting that the Bulls did their best work with Noah in the game. Hence his game-high plus-minus score of +13. The next best was Rose at +6. Lebron was +5.
I should also give some props to Deng, who scored 20 (9-for-16), two of which came on a very difficult reverse layup after he had gone behind his back to beat LeBron off the dribble. And even though James scored 39, Deng made him work hard for many of those points. Standing up to the best player on the planet is never an easy or enviable task, but Luol did it.
In fact, with 1:17 left and the Bulls lead down to 102-92, LeBron drove hard at Deng, drew a whistle, and banked in a short jumper. Unfortunately for James, that tweet he earned was an offensive foul.
Said ‘Bron: “I saw him backpedaling. Me as a driver, I’m watching the defender’s feet. I’m seeing if he’s stationed or is still moving. To me, I felt like he was still backpedaling, and as soon as I saw him backpedaling, that’s when I decided to take off. They called a charge. I haven’t seen the replay, but I know exactly what I’ve seen on the court with the defender right in front of me.”
It was a tough call, no question. But James put his head down and drove his shoulder right into Deng. That kind of move is perfectly legal for NFL running backs. Not so much for NBA players. It doesn’t matter that Luol was still moving. You can’t run over somebody.
Said Noah: “I think one of the refs was about to call a block and then he looked at the other ref because he wasn’t sure, and the other ref — thank God — called a charge. That was a huge play for us. I’m really happy that play went our way. I think I’m kind of biased, but to me, I thought it was a charge the whole time.”
At this point — after this crazy win — who am I to question Joakim Noah? Or the hearts of the Chicago Bulls. They’re giving the best team in the league everything they could ask for.
I hope all the free-agents-to-be are watching.
Joakim Noah, quote machine: Noah committed some silly fouls. This included, as Tony C. pointed out, “a dazzlingly stupid late foul on a LeBron dunk” in the fourth quarter when he already had four fouls. And Jo knew it.
Said Noah: “Stupid, stupid fouls.”
Of course, as Tony C. also pointed out: “VDN should not have allowed Noah to play several defensive sets guarding Lebron at the top of the key: that was a foul waiting to happen.”
Deng versus the King:
Here’s Luol’s sweet, sweet move on LeBron:
Noah versus the King:
Here’s that critical no-call on Joakim: