Facing a win-or-go home Game 7, the Bulls are in desperate need of a difference maker tonight against the Brooklyn Nets. And with seemingly everyone on the roster dealing with some sort of injury or ailment, Tom Thibodeau’s group can take breathe a sigh of relief knowing its emotional leader -- Joakim Noah -- is playing his best basketball of the series and may give the Bulls that extra nudge to win the best-of-seven series. Coverage begins at 6:00 with Bulls Pregame Live, hosted by Mark Schanowski, Sidney Green and Will Perdue.
Thibodeau has been quick to dismiss the notion that something as inanimate as hope or momentum was going to push the Bulls or Nets to a win in the series, and through six games he has been right. The team that has executed down the stretch, stayed out of foul trouble and had an player step up late has won each game.
And while emotion may not win tonight’s game, it doesn’t hurt the Bulls to have their emotional leader -- perhaps the most emotional player in the NBA -- feeling closer to 100 percent than he has all series. Noah, who has struggled through much of the series dealing with plantar fasciitis in his right foot, is finally starting to look more like the All-Star he was in February than the hobbled center he played like down the stretch of the regular season.
Through five games, Noah -- who said the injury felt like he was stepping on needles every time he ran -- averaged 8.4 points and 8.0 rebounds in a little more than 26 minutes per game. But in the Bulls’ Game 6 loss at home on Thursday he looked outstanding, scoring 14 points, grabbing 15 rebounds and handing out five assists in 43 minutes, four more minutes than he played in the triple-overtime Game 4 win. Noah also blocked five shots in the loss, looking mobile, athletic and, most important, energetic.
The box score will show the Nets winning Game 6, 95-92, but a small consolation was Noah finishing the game healthy. More than just his numbers, Noah’s versatility to come out on Nets center Brook Lopez -- instead of the post-oriented defender Nazr Mohammed -- hurt Brooklyn’s most consistent player in the series. Lopez, who averaged 23.6 points and 8.0 rebounds in the first five games of the series, was limited to a series-worst 17 points on 7-of-18 shooting and three rebounds. Noah’s improvement didn’t result in a Bulls win, but it may foreshadow Lopez not having it as easy in Game 7 as he did in Game 5, the last time the two teams played in Brooklyn (28 points and 10 rebounds in a 110-91 Nets win).
The Bulls have a number of question marks heading into Brooklyn tonight: Will Luol Deng miraculously play after undergoing a spinal tap two days ago? Can Kirk Hinrich’s calf heal up enough to slow down Deron Williams? Can Nate Robinson be effective on the defensive end?
But the one player who has carried the Bulls through most of their tough times this Derrick Rose-less season has been Noah. And the fact that he is finally looking like the player who dominated the first half of the NBA season and was on the fast-track to All-NBA Defensive Team honors before injuries slowed him is a fantastic sign for the Bulls. When Thibodeau’s group faced adversity this season, it was Noah who put the team on his back and willed them to a win. Now, with potentially one game left in the season, the Bulls will ask Noah, the first-time All-Star, to do just that one more time.
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