I freely admit it. I didn’t think the Bulls would win their Game 7 showdown against the Nets in Brooklyn.
I was wrong. Obviously.
The Bulls continue to defy the odds. They’ve been doing it for well over a year now. I should know better than to doubt them at this point, but in some ways it’s like watching a horror movie monster come back to life over and over. We hit it with an ax…it’s still coming! We set it on fire…it’s still coming! We blew it up with dynamite…IT’S STILL COMING!
Frankly, there were so many reasons — don’t let coach Tom Thibodeau hear you call them excuses — for the Bulls to fall this season. To fail.
Let’s start with the continuing absence of the team’s superstar. Derrick Rose, whose ongoing recovery from knee surgery has been making both fans and sports writers twitchy, hasn’t played a game this season and probably won’t. For his part, Rose isn’t paying attention to the criticism and seems content to wait it out until next season.
You know who else hasn’t played a single game for the Bulls this season? Omer Asik. Kyle Korver. C.J. Watson. Ronnie Brewer. John Lucas III. Management disbanded the vaunted Bench Mob last summer.
Then there have been injuries upon injuries. To Joakim Noah, Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, Marco Belinelli, Rip Hamilton and Taj Gibson.
All the turnover and missed games led to a wildly uneven season. The Bulls scored several big wins against some of the league’s elite teams, but they also lost quite a few games to lottery teams.
But they never quit. Never gave up. To a man, the Bulls embraced Thibodeau’s “more than enough to win” mantra. While the Atlanta Hawks were tanking the final two games of the regular season in hopes of avoiding Miami in the second round, the Bulls were clawing and scraping their way up to the East’s fifth seed.
They knew that to be the best, you have to beat the best. So while the Hawks were getting bounced by the Pacers in the first round, the Bulls once again beat the odds and advanced to round two.
And the player who best personifies the team’s ravenous desire to win every game is Joakim Noah.
It’s stunning to think that Noah is the same guy who as a rookie got suspended for a game by his own teammates. Those days are long past. For the past few seasons, Noah has clearly been the team’s spiritual leader. With Rose still out and apparently reluctant to play, Noah has simply became the leader. After the Bulls lost Game 6 in Chicago, Noah vowed they would come back and win Game 7 on the road.
Then he went out and made it happen.
Noah — whose plantar faciitis was so bad a couple weeks ago there was speculation he might miss the playoffs — had a monster game: 40 minutes, 24 points, 12-for-17, 14 rebounds, 6 blocked shots, 2 assists, 1 steal.
It was an historic accomplishment.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, Noah joined Elvin Hayes as the only two players in NBA history to have at least 24 points, 14 rebounds and 6 blocked shots in a Game 7. And Noah is one of only five players in league history to have at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks in a game, joining Hayes, Kevin Garnett, Dikembe Mutumbo and Patrick Ewing.
Not bad company.
Noah did it all. With Deng (debilitating illness) and Hinrich (bruised left calf) sitting out, Noah carried the Bulls on offense and defense. He knocked down jumpers. He hit left-handed layups and running one-handed floaters. He repeatedly stuffed Brook Lopez.
What’s more, Noah’s offensive rebounding gave the Bulls second chance after second chance. In fact, the game’s most symbolic play may have happened with just under five minutes to go in the game. With the Bulls trying to stave off a Brooklyn rally and the shot clock winding down, Nate Robinson drove and threw up a desperate layup attempt that was way off the mark. But Noah tore down the offensive board and shoveled the ball back to Robinson, who found Belinelli for a wide open three-pointer. BOOM.
Those were the kinds of plays that Noah and the Bulls made all night. Except for one stretch of the third quarter, the Bulls were the aggressors. They were physical and relentless. And the Nets could not match them.
It helped that Brooklyn’s Joe Johnson (2-for-14 from the field and 1-for-9 on threes) couldn’t have located the basket with a GPS. But more importantly, everybody in red and black was stepping up. Belinelli match Noah with 24 points on 8-for-14 shooting iced the game by hitting four straight free throws in the final half minute. Carlos Boozer played strong (17 points, 7 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal) despite foul trouble.
Jimmy Butler didn’t shoot well (3-for-10), but he played all 48 minutes for the second straight game and did a little of everything (9 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists). He was also a defensive demon. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Deron Williams went 4-for-11 and Johnson went 0-for-5 when matched up against Butler.
Even Daequan Cook (8 minutes, 3 points, 3 assists, 1 rebounds, +10) and Marquis Teague (14 minutes, 4 points, 3 assists, 1 steal, 1 blocked shot, +4) got into the act.
The Bulls used a second quarter bliztkrieg — 32 points on 13-for-21 shooting — to build a 17-point halftime lead. And as usual, the defense closed things out, limiting the Nets to 18 points on 7-for-23 shooting during the fourth quarter.
It all added up to the first Game 7 win in franchise history.
Said Noah: “I’ll remember this for the rest of my life.”
As well he should. The Bulls could have been proud had they lost. They should be ridiculously proud that they won.
Said Boozer: “We’ve had that [“more than enough to win” mantra] since I got here in Chicago, man. You go in the locker room you see a big sign above our locker room that says ‘No excuses.’ We take that wholeheartedly since I’ve been here. Didn’t matter who was out — we’ve had guys that stepped up. Take your hat off to guys like Marquis Teague and Daequan Cook and Nazr Mohammed and Taj Gibson because they gave us a huge lift coming off that bench.”
Added Thibodeau: “I thought our guys, we took a big punch in Game 1 and we kept fighting back and that’s been the story of the season.”
Now here they are. Against all reason. In the Eastern Conference Semi-finals against the defending NBA champions.
Said Noah: “We were in the locker room, everybody’s got ice, everybody is tired, it is unbelievable to share these moments. I’m very excited to face the Heat; you want to play against the best. This is what it is all about, playing against the defending champs. It’s going to be a war.”