The free throw glanced off the rim, and Defensive Player of the Year, Joakim Noah, leapt for the rebound. Just beyond his grasp, though, the fingertips of Nene emerged, tapping the ball back out to John Wall.
The Bulls’ D.J. Augustin was forced to foul Wall, who sank both free throws, and along with it, any remaining hope the Bulls had of winning the game or the series.
Chicago’s season was over.
It was a somewhat fitting end, as the series had been marked largely by Nene having his way with Noah. When Nene wasn’t backing Noah up in the post, he was raining down mid-range jumpers over him. By the time all the dust had settled, Nene had averaged 17.8 points on .548 shooting for the series.
As bad as it was, though, it wasn't even the low point of Noah’s series. That came before it even started.
Before Game 1 of the series, Noah’s mentor, Tyronne Green or “Mr. Green” to Noah, passed away. Days later when Noah was announced as the DPOY winner, he dedicated the award to Mr. Green.
Noah didn’t look right during the series. His usual “Tiggerness” was absent. Whether it was the malaise of having lost his mentor or playing through an injury was unclear, initially. But as the series progressed, it became evident he was favoring his right leg.
At the conclusion of the series, he made it known he’d been playing with a left knee injury. Per Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago, Noah said:
My knee is bothering me. My left knee. I'm not sure what it is, but I was able to play today. I think I was limited a little bit. But it's no excuses. I'll check it out, find out what's wrong, take care of it. Now we got a lot of time to take care of it.
There will be those who use Noah’s postseason struggles to cast aspersions on his award, as though what happened in the playoffs should send backward ripples through time, changing votes that were cast prior to the beginning of the series.
This is not a new thing. People will often erroneously use postseason failures to castigate regular-season award recipients. For example, some will use the Dallas Mavericks' first-round exit to “prove” that Dirk Nowitzki didn’t deserve the MVP for the 2006-07 season.
These kinds of arguments make two huge errors, though: They conflate regular-season awards with postseason performance, and they deny the efforts of the other team/players involved in the postseason “failure.”
Addressing the first point, why did Noah receive the DPOY award? I won’t give you my reasoning, but I will quote some of those who actually had votes and cast them for Noah.
Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report said, “Too often, the award goes to a big guy who blocks shots; Noah offers a magical combination of paint presence and territory coverage” in justifying his first-place vote for Noah.
Ken Berger of CBS Sports argued:
Noah's graceful footwork, instincts and communication make him one of the best big men in the league at defending the pick-and-roll, the staple of NBA offense. On nearly eight attempts at the rim per game, Noah held opponents to .467 shooting this season. ...
The fact that Chicago was second in the league in defensive efficiency -- and got stingier after Luol Deng was traded in January -- can be attributed to Noah's presence as a rim protector, pick-and-roll disruptor and overall defensive maestro.
Zach Lowe of Grantland presented his case:
Noah doesn’t spook players into wild floaters the way (Roy) Hibbert does, but he’s fast and maniacally precise about timing and positioning. He will make you shoot over his outstretched arms, and when he’s done altering your shot he’s going to turn, knock the hell out of someone, and make sure Chicago grabs the rebound. He does not mess up in pick-and-roll coverage — ever. He does not allow little-guy ball handlers a path to the rim on switches. He is one step ahead reading plays, always moving around to bother cutters and invade passing lanes.
The reason Noah won the DPOY award wasn't his ability to lock down the best centers in the league; it was his diversity and ability to defend multiple positions that won him the honors. Did Nene’s performance change any of that?
To the second point, sometimes we assign one player a failure during a playoff series rather than another player a success. For example, LeBron James’ “failure” in the 2012 finals is often overplayed. Credit should be given to Rick Carlisle for devising the schemes that stopped James and the Dallas Mavericks’ Shawn Marion for executing them.
Similarly, Nene hit a number of challenged shots. We can complain that Noah didn’t stop him, but in doing so, we steal credit Nene earned by playing exceptionally well. He created the shots, either by backing Noah down or having an unusually crafty step-back jumper for a big man. He made the shots he created. He was consistent, intelligent and skilled in what he did.
Why does this have to be a failure story? Why can’t it be a success story? Why can’t the narrative here be Nene played the best series of his life against the Defensive Player of the Year?
The confluence of Nene’s specific talents with Noah’s emotional struggles and injury made for a really bad series for Noah—there’s no denying that—but none of that can impact what happened before, nor should it.
Noah still had a great regular season. He led the Chicago Bulls through an incredibly adverse year to get to the playoffs. None of that was changed by the results of the postseason, so it shouldn’t impact the award.
Neither should that Noah won the award detract from what Nene did. Rather, it should magnify it.
It shouldn’t be cast as a negative story, but it probably will. It will because there are still people that struggle with the concept of regular-season awards being given for regular-season play.
I’ll dare to be different, though. I’ll commend Noah for a great regular season. And, I’ll also commend Nene for a great postseason series.