Immediately after the final buzzer sounded in the Bulls 99-93 Game 7 win over the Nets on Saturday, Joakim Noah walked toward center court, screaming with excitement and popping his road red Bulls jersey.
He had every right to do so, considering his inspired performance was the main reason behind his team’s victory — one that will send them to Miami for the second round of the playoffs against the defending champion Heat.
Noah finished with 24 points, 14 rebounds, and six blocked shots in 41 minutes of action, and was the catalyst for the Bulls in bringing the energy from the very start. He opened the game with 10 points and five rebounds — all offensive — in the first 12 minutes, and instilled the belief in his teammates that, despite being undermanned with key players out due to injury, that they might still have enough on this night to survive and advance.
Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich were both out for the Bulls — Deng was hospitalized after suffering complications from a spinal tap he received days earlier, and Hinrich tried to go in warmups, but his calf injury was too severe for him to feel like he could have contributed anything at all to his team’s effort.
The second quarter for Chicago was where the damage was done, and even seldom-used players off the bench that were pressed into action were able to contribute in temporarily blowing the game open in the Bulls’ favor. Marquis Teague, Nazr Mohammed, and Daequan Cook all hit shots in the period, one in which Chicago shot almost 62 percent from the field, while getting out to a lead of 17 points by the end of the first half.
Brooklyn finally brought the energy a Game 7 should require in the third quarter, and shaved 10 points off of the halftime lead before the period was through. Gerald Wallace was key for the Nets during that stretch, scoring 11 of his 19 points, while knocking down three shots from three-point distance.
The Nets were able to get as close as five late in the game, but the Bulls seemed to answer every single time they got close. Marco Belinelli scored on a layup with the shot clock winding down on a possession with about two minutes remaining to push the lead back to seven, and finished the Bulls scoring for the game by converting four free throws down the stretch to seal it.
Joe Johnson was playing through injury for the Nets, and said a couple of days earlier that he was essentially a decoy on the court while playing on one leg. He gave it a go in this one, but his shot was nowhere near what he’s capable of, and his inability to hit open looks hurt the Nets more than his presence helped. Johnson finished just 2-of-14 from the field in 38 minutes, including just 1-of-9 from three-point distance.
It really was an incredible accomplishment by these Bulls to overcome the loss of so many key players to win a playoff series on the road like this. Things get immediately and exponentially more difficult beginning on Monday in Miami, but for now, Tom Thibodeau and the healthy Bulls that stepped up deserve all the credit in the world for their Game 7 performance.