With their former MVP, Derrick Rose, still glued to the sideline, the Chicago Bulls leaned heavily on their pair of first-year All-Stars to even their first-round series with the Brooklyn Nets on Monday night.
It wasn't pretty, but it was Tom Thibodeau's brand of basketball through and through. Behind a team-wide suffocating defensive effort and a heroic, one-legged performance from Joakim Noah, the Bulls managed a 90-82 win over the host Nets.
Luol Deng played the role of silent executioner for Chicago, pouring in a team-high 15 points to go along with 10 rebounds, four assists, two blocks and a steal in 42 minutes.
But the boisterous Noah resoundingly stole the show, even while hampered by an ongoing battle with plantar fasciitis and the corresponding drop in playing time. He had 11 points, 10 boards, three assists and two blocks as Thibodeau afforded him just 29 seconds over the high end of the predetermined 20- to 25-minute limit for his starting center.
As the intensity increased in the waning moments, so too did Noah's production. Via Bulls radio producer Jeff Mangurten:
Joakim Noah's BIG 4th quarter numbers: 9 points, 6 rebounds (4 offensive), 1 block.— Jeff Mangurten (@JeffGurt) April 23, 2013
A bruising defensive effort in the third quarter gave Chicago a 22-11 advantage in the period, breaking open what had been a back-and-forth battle throughout the opening 24 minutes. But a pair of fourth-quarter Joe Johnson triples sandwiched around a C.J. Watson layup brought the Barclays Center to life, as the Nets trimmed the deficit to just four with a little over four minutes left in regulation.
Chicago's All-Star big man had no intentions of letting the game slip away, though. Whether crashing the offensive glass, diving for loose balls or protecting the rim, Noah's determination allowed the Bulls to become the first team to tally a road win this postseason.
It was the type of effort that tears through the biased-based walls of personal affiliations. From Brian Mahoney of the Associated Press:
Like Noah or not, really gutty effort tonight on the bad foot.— Brian Mahoney (@briancmahoney) April 23, 2013
Have to love Joakim Noah. Guy can barely walk, and he's got 11 points and 10 boards and made so many huge plays late for Chicago.— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) April 23, 2013
Now, to be fair, all credit for this win can't be doled out to Noah alone.
Thanks to an uncharacteristically rough shooting night from Deron Williams (eight points on a 1-of-9 effort from the field) and Johnson's inconsistency (17 points, 6-of-18), the Bulls guards were able to focus on Brooklyn's All-Star big man Brook Lopez, its lone consistent source of production (21 points, 7-of-14).
And while the Nets struggled from the perimeter, the Bulls found just enough from Kirk Hinrich (13 points), Nate Robinson (11) and Marco Belinelli (eight).
But Chicago's fiery leader emerged as the story of the game, one that already had some, like CBSSports.com's Matt Moore, attaching some superhuman qualities to it:
NOAH IS TOUGHEST NOAH IS STRONGEST. NOAH IS HULK.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 23, 2013
ESPN's John Schuhmann attached a much more grounded meaning to the game, though he offered equal praise for the former Florida Gator:
Joakim Noah #podiumgame— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) April 23, 2013
Needless to say, it was the kind of night where importance shared an equal stage with inspiration.
Who will win this series?
As for what it means for Chicago's postseason chances, that's a story yet to be told. Noah has played only 38 minutes in the first two games of this series, and despite Monday night's stat line, he remains worlds removed from 100 percent.
ESPN Chicago's Jon Greenberg cautioned Bulls fans to temper expectations for Noah going forward:
Noah will get two full days off before Game 3, but G4 is Saturday early afternoon. That's going to be tough.— jon greenberg (@espnchijon) April 23, 2013
Of course, after watching this game, it's hard to imagine anything keeping Joakim Noah out of action. And that could very well mean a second-round meeting with the defending champion Miami Heat.