NEW YORK — There’s no way to avoid it. This was about toughness and defense.
Actually, it was about Joakim Noah, who, in turn, is about toughness and defense.
It was Noah who promised that his team would win Game 7 in Brooklyn on Saturday. And it was Noah who was most responsible for that promise being fulfilled, leading the Chicago Bulls to a 99-93, series-ending victory.
“We’re going to go into a hostile environment, and we’re going to win,” Noah said after his Chicago Bulls lost Game 6 of their first round series with the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday.
From the outside, it seemed a little far-fetched. And if you’re reading this, you already know the circumstances. No Derrick Rose. No Kirk Hinrich. No Luol Deng. Taj Gibson? Banged up. Noah? Banged up. This was (and still is) the M.A.S.H. unit of all M.A.S.H. units.
Meanwhile, the Nets had seemingly found their footing after their brutal collapse in Game 4, earning this Game 7 on their home floor with two series-saving victories. They had outscored the Bulls by 20 points over the course of the first six games. But never underestimate the heart of a … team that’s got more heart … and better defense.
Noah set the tone early, grabbing (or tipping) three offensive rebounds in the first three minutes on Saturday. Eventually, he took his offense to the outside, knocking down a couple of jumpers and attacking the Nets’ sagging defense from the high post.
Oh yeah, the Nets’ defense. It was terrible, especially in the first half.
The legacy of this Nets team may be that they didn’t care. More accurately, they didn’t defend. And appropriately, they started their summer vacation a little early by allowing a really bad offensive team (missing two key components) to score 61 points in the first half of the most important game of the season.
The killer stretch was the end of the second quarter, when Chicago scored on 13 of its final 15 possessions. And one of those two empty possessions was a wide-open corner 3-pointer for a guy – Daequan Cook – who won the 3-point shootout a few years ago. The Nets simply couldn’t stay in front of the Bull with the ball, whether he was guard or a big. Carlos Boozer drove right past Andray Blatche. Noah drove right past Reggie Evans. Marco Belinelli drove right past Gerald Wallace for maybe the biggest basket of the game.
Rinse. Repeat. See you next season.
“They got too many easy layups, easy baskets,” Deron Williams said. “Our defensive principles we didn’t execute today.”
The Bulls’ defense was far from perfect. It allowed the Nets, when they finally played with some energy, to score 31 points in the third quarter and climb back in the game. Brooklyn actually finished with more offensive rebounds (19) than Chicago (13), but they couldn’t convert them as well. And not coincidentally, it was the better defensive team that got the stops it needed down the stretch.
Noah, of course, was the anchor, and he kept Brook Lopez (21 points on 9-for-20 shooting) from ever getting much of a rhythm. Noah himself finished with 24 points, 14 rebounds and six blocked shots. All effort and energy.
“We were asking him to do a lot, basically be everywhere on our defense,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Defend the pick-and-roll, sprint back to the basket, close out, block out, pursue the ball. In every aspect of our defense, he’s exerting a lot of energy. He’s in unbelievable shape and he can make plays that very few can.”
Of course, Noah wasn’t in great shape a couple of weeks ago, dealing with plantar fasciitis that kept him out of 13 of the Bulls’ final 16 regular season games.
“The day before the playoffs, I was barely walking,” he said.
He played just 13 minutes in Game 1, but gradually started to feel better. And he obviously felt great on Saturday. Promise fulfilled.