On one side of the Bulls locker room was Taj Gibson, with a towel wrapped around his head, looking like death itself.
Across from him was Nate Robinson, looking none too healthy himself after a national audience witnessed him vomiting on the sideline during a timeout.
And next to Robinson was Joakim Noah, fired up, emotional and inspired, but mostly ready.
“I’m ready to play. I’m ready to play right now. That’s my emotions,” Noah said in a serious tone. “We’re a team of fighters. We keep getting punched in the face, but we fight back. I’m proud of this team and we’re going to go into a hostile environment in Brooklyn, and we’re going to win.
“It’s going to take just all of us sticking together through all kinds of adversity. This has been a hard year—it’s been a real hard year—but I’m really proud of this team. We’re a team of fighters and tonight was disappointing. We wanted to close it out, get ready for the next series, but we’re playing against a very talented group. But we think we’re capable,” the All-Star center continued. “I’m ready. I’m ready. I want to play right now.
“I’m just ready to kick some [expletive].”
This comes after a “Flu Game” of another type for the Bulls, one in which they lost, but not just one player—sure, that player was Michael Jordan, but he was just one man, not to mention the fact that it was more of a “Food Poisoning Game”—but three were afflicted with a bug of some sort.
However, while Robinson and Gibson suffered from a more conventional flu—not to take that lightly, as most of us don’t even like to get out of bed when we have a common cold, to say nothing of going to work with the flu, let alone playing basketball at the highest level—Luol Deng couldn’t even join his teammates.
The All-Star small forward wasn’t at the United Center for the 95-92 Game 6 loss, as he was sent home after not being medically cleared to play, a result of the side effects from the spinal tap he underwent when being tested for viral meningitis.
[RELATED: What a difference a week makes for the Nets]
Deng spent part of Wednesday evening in a Chicago-area hospital emergency room, a person with knowledge of the situation told CSNChicago.com.
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said Deng came to the Berto Center for the team’s morning shootaround Thursday, but for the second consecutive day, the league’s back-to-back minutes-per-game leader couldn’t participate.
“He was in the facility in the morning, got treatment,” said Thibodeau, who claimed he didn’t know the specifics of Deng’s situation. “Came in this evening, got more treatment, so basically I didn’t find out until about an hour, an hour and a half before the game.”
This is already without starting point guard Kirk Hinrich, whose calf injury was described by a source as “looking like a Stromboli,” due to its multi-colored appearance earlier Thursday, not to mention Gibson’s pre-existing ailing knee and Noah’s own bout with plantar fasciitis.
“We have enough. We have enough,” Thibodeau insisted. “We’ve been short-handed most of the year, so guys have been called upon all year to get the job done. I feel we’re more than capable. I thought tonight’s game was very winnable. We need one great game and that’s all we’re thinking about.”
He was nearly correct.
Although it was an uncharacteristically high-scoring game for the Bulls in the first half, they hung with the Nets, as Robinson’s instant offense and Noah’s energy, as well a tremendous performance by fill-in starter Marco Belinelli and a solid all-around effort from Jimmy Butler, almost sent the Nets back to Brooklyn for good.
“I just try to be ready every time. Lu, this morning, was really bad,” said Belinelli, who scored 22 points and tied a career-high with seven assists. “[Belinelli learned he was starting right] before the game. That’s no problem for me. That’s part of the game. Lu was out and Kirk was out, so the other guys need to be ready to step up.”
Thibodeau praised Belinelli’s play, saying, “I thought he did a very good job. He did a lot of good things out there. Ran the pick-and-roll, shot the ball well, made plays. But not enough.”
But overall, the Bulls, as expected, didn’t make any excuses for their play or take solace in the fact that they competed so well down so many bodies.
“I don’t even want to think about it. It’s hard because I know how hard we fought to get in that position and we just couldn’t get over the hump. You just think about so many plays in the game—if you could just have it back—but this is what it’s all about. Moving forward, not looking back. You can’t have this one back. Just move on, get ready for a big Game 7 on the road,” Noah said. “I’m not sure what the difference was, but our defense is five people being on the same page. That’s what our defensive scheme is all about. I think we did better as the game went on. For Game 7, we’re going to need 48 minutes of being on the same page.”
A despondent Butler added: “We played extremely hard. We just didn’t pull it out in the end. They just beat us.
“[Butler’s teammates playing through various maladies] just shows the heart, but I feel like all of us are tough. Even whenever we’re out, we want to get back to 100 percent and I feel they’re going to get their rest, and they’re going to get back whenever they can,” he continued. “That’s no excuse. We’re still the Chicago Bulls, down three, four, five, seven people. We’re still expected to win games, so at the end of the day, we didn’t do what we’re supposed to do.”
[RELATED: Deng sent home before Game 6]
“[The Bulls’ confidence is] going up. It’s damn sure not going to go down. They know they’ve got to win [Game] 7, we know we’ve got to win Game 7. Same style of basketball. It’s going to be a fight. The tougher team’s going to get the win. We go in wanting to be the tougher team.”
Robinson certainly displayed the type of toughness Butler referenced, as the pint-sized scorer took on Nets floor general Deron Williams and went on enough of his instant-offense spurts to keep the Bulls in it until the end, despite being ill enough to be seen getting sick on the sidelines during timeouts.
“Yeah, man. You go through stuff like that. You’ve got to play sick,” he explained. “You’ve got to beat adversity, so another obstacle that you’ve got to conquer, I guess.
“I just think it’s a regular flu because a couple guys got it, but I don’t know, it’s sinuses or something. I don’t know what it is. It is what it is. Something steps in your way, you’ve got to be able to bounce back and get ready for the next game,” Robinson went on to say. “Just a couple times you have to throw up during the game. You can’t really call timeout, so you’ve got to play through it and wait for the timeout to come.”
Thibodeau, ever the gruff realist, added: “He’s been sick for a while, but that’s part of it. In the NBA, over the course of the season, guys get sick. They play through illness. I thought Nate still functioned well. Nate’s been sick for a while. He battled.”
Even Robinson, an NBA journeyman, has never seen so many players on the same team have so many different physical issues simultaneously, but that doesn’t concern him at the moment.
“Not in the playoffs. It’s a little different. There’s more at stake, but guys, this is what we’re built for. This is what we live for, situations like this. Come out victorious, it’s going to be a great story, so you’ve got to play through it,” he said. “It’s going to be a hostile environment. You’ve got to get a win. Both teams are hungry for a win and the more hungry team is going to win it, and it’s got to be us.”
After surrendering a 3-1 series lead and an opportunity to rest before traveling to Miami for the second round, the Bulls are now faced with a Game 7 on the road and a day in between to prepare for the defending-champion Heat, if they can beat Brooklyn on its home turf.
Thibodeau put it simply: “I know we’re capable of doing well against them. We’re going to have to play our best game and I believe we will.”