NEW YORK—For the first half of Monday’s Game 2 of the Bulls’ first-round playoff series against the Nets, it appeared that Joakim Noah’s decision to play through the pain of the plantar fasciitis in his right foot was a bad one.
As Brooklyn All-Star center Brook Lopez repeatedly knocked down open jumpers and Noah’s typical ability to help and recover in the Bulls’ defensive scheme was limited by his mobility, it seemed as if his team might be better off without him—his inability to explode, be a factor on the glass or hit open jumpers made offensive possessions four-on-five scenarios—as his courage was overshadowed by his ineffectiveness.
But Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau exhibited great patience and for that, he was rewarded, as Noah responded in the second half, came up big down the stretch and finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots in the Bulls’ 90-82 Game 2 victory, which evened the series at one game apiece.
“I thought he was great all around. He started off the game, helped set the tone for the game and came back, played well I thought, in the second quarter,” Thibodeau explained. “It’s easy to say, ‘That’s Jo’s man who’s scoring,’ but Deron Williams is forcing you to do things and so, whenever we go to help on Deron, we’ve got to help on Jo.
“Deron’s so good on the pick-and-roll, it requires your entire team to react and be tied together,” he continued. “You have to decide what you’re going to live with. That’s the thing that makes it tough. Lopez has great touch for a big guy and Deron’s a very unselfish player.”
“Jo was very rusty in the first game, but willed it and I thought he willed it again tonight, and we needed every bit of it. To me, it’s obvious we’re a much better team with him on the floor.”
Noah predictably downplayed his impact on the game, but it was obvious that the former Poly Prep student—the Brooklyn high school the New York City native attended—was excited about the win, his first ever in the borough as an NBA player.
[HIGHLIGHTS: Bulls even series with Brooklyn]
“No question about it, no question about it. Just being able to play in the playoffs is something that I’ll never take for granted, and just being able to do it in front of my loved ones and my family is something really special to me,” he said. “Just found a way. It feels great to come out with a win tonight. We showed a lot of resiliency, came out flat in Game 1. I feel like it was a great team effort and we’ve been doing that all year. Dealt with a lot of adversity and to come out, the biggest moment of our season and play the way that we played was huge.”
“I haven’t played in almost a month before the playoffs, so I’m just trying to get in my rhythm. I missed a lot of open shots. I’ve just got to feel more comfortable, but I feel like overall, our team played more passionate basketball tonight and I feel that’s a plus because it was ugly in that Game 1,” Noah, who played 25 minutes, almost double his Game 1 total, went on to say. “Just trying to affect the game, affect winning, find a way. I wasn’t really thinking too much, just hooping, trying to make plays, trying to help.
“After a win in the playoffs, you’re always sky-high, feeling good about yourself, but you’ve got to stay focused and know that there’s a lot of basketball left. Anything can happen in the playoffs. Sometimes you’re going to play well, sometimes you’re not. It’s all about how you deal with it, these situations. So just be aware of it. ‘Okay, we won. That’s great.’ We also played like [expletive] in the first game, so now it’s on us to be ready for Game 3.”
Noah’s teammates weren’t surprised at his effort, knowing the heart and determination he possesses and has displayed on countless occasions.
“He’s our leader. He’s been playing like that all year long. Even though he’s hurt, playing on one leg, he’s still out there doing his job. He did a great job and we’re going to take this win,” said Brooklyn native Taj Gibson, who has suffered from the ailment in the past himself. “One thing about plantar fasciitis, once it gets warmed up, it feels a little better, because I had it before. It’s a pain, but he just played through it. He was a warrior today and if it wasn’t for him, I don’t know if we would have got this win.”
Fellow All-Star Luol Deng added: “He came up big for us, he was huge and that’s Jo. He’ll just keep playing hard…Jo was huge. A lot of guys are playing hurt. Jo wants to play and it’s been frustrating for him.”
Of course, the true test for Noah’s ailing foot will be Tuesday, when it can be further evaluated to see if his minutes can be increased—he was cleared to play 20 to 25 minutes Monday, and reached the maximum—stay the same or be further restricted.
“He said he’s feeling better, he’s getting a lot of treatment, so we’re probably going to stay in that area of 20, 25 minutes, maybe see how he is tomorrow,” Thibodeau said. “You never know with that injury.”
Noah quipped: “It feels great.
“I haven’t played in a long time, so I feel like the more I’m on the court and my foot is willing, it’s going to get better,” he continued. “Just trying to find a way. I’m just happy that my foot is holding up.
“Being able to do it in Brooklyn, in front of my family, in front of my friends, I think that helps, too.”
If that’s the case, in front of his devoted fan base in Chicago, it should be just fine for Thursday’s Game 3, as well.
“It’s a whole other ballgame out there. I mean, it’s not even comparable. This is a great place to play basketball, but these are new fans. They’ve been doing this for a long time over there in Chi, so Chi-Town’s going to be ready on Thursday,” he explained, with a playful smirk on his face. “It’s going to be a battle. We’ll be ready, they’ll be ready, they’re going to make their adjustments. It’s postseason basketball. This is what it’s all about.”