By emerging victorious in an epic Sunday evening confrontation, the Bulls finally wrested the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot away from the mighty Toronto Raptors.
Release the Kraken! Release it I say!
Okay, I’m being a little sarcastic. Maybe even a lot sarcastic.
In all honesty, the Bulls and Raptors are currently engaged in one of the saddest “Clash of the Titans”-style postseason positioning duels I’ve ever seen. Both teams are below .500. Toronto has dropped five straight games and 14 of 20 overall. Earlier this week, Chicago suffered critical losses to the Andrew Bogut-less Milwaukee Bucks and the 12-win New Jersey Nets while barely beating the LeBron James-less Cleveland Cavaliers.
Do either of these teams actually want to make the playoffs?
Maybe tonight’s game answered that question. The Raptors — who recently lost Chris Bosh for the season due to a broken face — fell behind by 10 at the half (58-48), by 19 after three quarters (84-65), and by as many as 25 in the fourth (94-69). It was like the home team had been hypnotized into thinking this was a preseason game.
Near the end of the third quarter, Hedo Turkoglu, who has become persona non grata in Toronto, bricked two free throws and the crowd booed him with extreme prejudice. Late in the fourth, a Jannero Pargo air ball was hauled in by Reggie Evans. Evans then threw a lazy pass that was interecepted by Pargo, who walked it in for an uncontested layup.
Yep. This one was ugly, folks.
If the Raptors had any will left to win this game, it was broken by Joakim Noah, who finished with 18 points (7-for-10), 19 rebounds and a career-high-matching 7 assists. Forget the asteroid and volcano theories. It was obviously Noah who drove the dinosaurs to extinction. And although the fact that Toronto ranks dead last in Defensive Efficency probably had something to do with Noah’s stat stuffing performance, Joakim obviously brought his A-Game.
And then some.
Derrick Rose — who was big with 26 points and 7 assists — had this to say about Hurricane Noah:
“He was focused in layup lines, the locker room, on the bus. He’s giving his all, so you want to do the same when you see that.”
Said Noah: “I knew it was a really important game, I was really focused. I just wanted to go out there and impose my will as much as I could, just be aggressive offensively and defensively. It was a huge win and I just wanted to make sure that our team played harder than their team.”
Well, mission accomplished, Jo. It’s probably worth noting at this point that — for all their recent struggles — the Bulls have won eight of 12 since Noah returned from his plantar fasciitis-induced mini-vacation. Prior to that, Joakim missed 10 straight games…and Chicago lost all of them.
I’m here to tell you Joakim Noah is a winner. He goes full tilt every night. He wants it as bad as anybody. The dude is like a lightning storm in high tops. Noah has limitations, and there are facets of his game that still need to be improved and polished. But honestly, every team would like to have a player like Noah on their roster. Heck, probably a whole team of Noahs (which is a scary notion, now that I think about it). Somebody who will sacrifice their body for the good of the team and would walk face-first through a Kraken attack to win.
Frankly, if the Raptors would have put in half the effort Jo did, they might have won tonight. At the very least they would have competed.
All that said, the Bulls aren’t in the clear just yet. To make the playoffs, they either need a win in both of their remaining games or a combination of one win and one Raptors loss. Or, I suppose, two Raptors losses. But in a perfect world, it’s better for a team to try to win it’s way into the playoffs.
The Bulls have the tougher path. Chicago still has two playoff teams to go through (the Celtics and Bobcats) while Toronto will face two lottery-bound teams (the Pistons and Knicks). But it doesn’t matter to Noah, who is welcoming the challenge with crazy hair and open arms.
“It’s good that we have Boston coming up,” Noah said. “That’s an easy game to get up for. If we were playing in front of [a crowd of] 2,000 in New Jersey, it’s a different situation. We understand what’s at stake.”