NEW YORK – The way Joakim Noah sounded at 10 a.m. Monday, half awake and with nagging soreness in his right foot, the thought of the Brooklyn Nets’ Brook Lopez banging into, past and through him right then, right there was cringe-worthy. Good thing for the Chicago Bulls center it was only his team’s morning shootaround in an opponent-free gym on Manhattan’s west side.
The challenge posed by Lopez, both to a hobbled Noah individually and to the Bulls’ hopes of advancing beyond this first-round series, still was 12 hours away.
The idea of him and the havoc he can wreak in the heart of Chicago’s defense, though, was ever present.
“It’s not only his back-to-the-basket game,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of Lopez, who scored 19 of his 21 points in the first half of an easy Brooklyn victory in Game 1 Saturday. “It’s what he gets off pick-and-rolls and spotting up. The first quarter, I think he was 3-for-7, but he got seven free throws.”
Lopez drew fouls on three different Bulls big men, sending Taj Gibson back to the bench after barely four minutes. Noah, limited by his plantar-fascia tear, stuck around for only 6:25, which left Nazr Mohammed, Carlos Boozer and gang tactics to cope, poorly, with Lopez.
Noah, while reporting less discomfort in his foot Monday, still will likely be held to restricted minutes.That means more gang work, again, in trying to keep Lopez from too much early impact.
Said Thibodeau: “You have to play him on the perimeter, play him to put it on the floor and play him back-to-the-basket. We allowed him to get some easy ones, too, which got his confidence going.”
Exactly, said the Nets. Brooklyn guard Deron Williams said after Game 1 that he’s been urging Lopez to follow his lead when the playmaker penetrates the paint. “I’ve been on Brook all year that when we get two [defenders] on the ball on my penetration, just trun to the front of the rim, because he’s going to get easy baskets,” Williams said.
Lopez seems to be learning. Williams’ play improved after the All-Star break and Lopez has benefited. The big man’s field-goal percentage in the opening quarter of games in February was 40.0 percent. That bumped to 56.3 percent in March and 62.0 percent in April as he and Williams built their on-court chemistry.
That’s what Noah and the Bulls, aching or not, will have to thwart, especially in the first 12 minutes after tipoff.
Said Noah, who has tried just about everything – ice, stretching, massage, acupuncture – to ease his foot pain: “We’ve got to try to find a way to slow him down. It’ll take a team effort. Can’t let him get [to his spots] on the floor.”