NEW YORK—It’s been quite a turnaround in the first round of the playoffs for Joakim Noah.
On the eve of the postseason, the All-Star center was despondent and it seemed unlikely that he’d even be able to suit up for the Bulls against the Nets, due to an ongoing bout of plantar fasciitis in his right foot that’s hampered him since the All-Star break.
Then came Game 1 in Brooklyn and while his surprise start and appearance on a minutes restriction was a great story, in truth, he wasn’t all that effective in the loss.
Ditto for Game 2, although the Bulls won, but as time went on, the charismatic, unorthodox, native New Yorker got better and better.
In the series finale Saturday night in Brooklyn, the Big Apple borough in which he attended high school, Noah saved his best for last, going for 24 points, 14 rebounds and a career-high six blocked shots in the Bulls’ wire-to-wire win.
“It means the world to me. Before this series, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play. I could barely walk and to be in this situation right now and win a Game 7 like this, in front of my family,” Noah said, a mile-wide grin on his face. “I’ll remember this for the rest of my life.
“There’s so many people that I want to thank right now because it’s really been a roller-coaster for me the last month. I hadn’t played a lot before the playoffs started and the day before the playoffs, I was barely walking,” he continued, listing numerous people who helped with his rehab process behind the scenes, as if he had won an Oscar. “I did so many treatments the last month. Just to be able to be in this position means a lot to me.”
Following the Bulls’ Game 6 loss Thursday back in Chicago, Noah—who could never be described as a wallflower, both off the court and in his frenetic style of play—brashly guaranteed that his team would beat the Nets.
Without fellow All-Star Luol Deng and floor general Kirk Hinrich, from the outside looking in, that might not have seemed like a prudent move.
But from the outset of Game 7, Noah backed it up, whether it was with five offensive rebounds in the opening period, beating All-Star counterpart Brook Lopez off the dribble, smothering the Nets center on the other end of the floor or even knocking down his patented “Tornado” jumper, for which he brought back his trademark “finger guns” celebration, something he shelved after the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Connecticut, but for a night, was fitting.
With Deng, who was released from a Chicago hospital earlier in the day, on his mind and his ailing foot considerably improved—one of his greatest strengths, his agility and ability to run the floor, was back in effect—Noah showed up and showed out.
“We had just lost two in a row and we were going through a lot with Lu being out. Lu has been a warrior for us all year and I knew how hard it would be for him to sit out a big game like this. It’s really hard, so I just wanted our team to be confident and just believe we could get it done. That’s why I said that,” he said. “I feel great. I’m just so proud of this team. We’ve been fighting through so much all year and to be in this situation, playing on the biggest stage in the world and to be able to win and now play against the Heat, all these experiences, I’ll never take those for granted.
“Every time there’s a loose ball, we’ve got to think it’s our ball. They’re a very talented group out there, so all the hustle plays, we knew that we needed to win that battle inside the game to be able to compete,” Noah went on to say. “I take what the defense gives me and I think I’m always going to be that type of player, but they were trying to take Booz out of the game, double-teaming a lot and daring me to shoot basically, so I just wanted to be aggressive today.”
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau can grow frustrated with Noah, who doesn’t typically make mistakes out of hesitation, but excessive exuberance.
On this night, however, even the perfectionist coach had nothing to quibble with when it came to the center’s performance.
"Unbelievable. There’s plays that he makes, great multiple-effort type plays, where he can get quickly to a second and third jump. Very few guys can do that. We also ask him to do a lot, basically be everywhere in our defense. Defending pick-and-rolls, sprint back to the basket, close out, block out, pursue the ball and every aspect of our defense, whether it’s defensive transition, catch-and-shoot, pick-and-roll, he’s exerting a lot of energy. He’s in unbelievable shape and he can make plays that very few can,” the coach explained.
“Joakim wants to play every night, but because of all the injuries that he’s had and because of all the games that he missed the second half of the year, he really has not practiced. He finally started practicing again and I don’t know what he did, but he did something and his foot started feeling better. The medical staff makes those decisions, the doctors and our trainer. We have to trust them and we have to trust Joakim. Initially when he was playing, he had soreness the next day, so we were concerned about that. Now, he longer has that soreness, so we picked up his minutes.”
Teammate Taj Gibson, a fellow New Yorker—Gibson is actually from Brooklyn, the same neighborhood as the Barclays Center—recounted how Noah’s leadership ensured that the Nets didn’t make him eat his words.
[Jimmy Butler: The long, winding road]
“Game 7s are tough. Back against the wall, both teams are do or die,” Gibson said. “Joakim, he had that smirk because he felt good in his feet. He’s one of the guys that finally felt a little bit healthy, so the way he was moving around, jumping, he did a great job, man.
“He led with his actions and everyone just followed. Guys just kept battling. We got good minutes from our rookie. Everybody just stepped up, tried to do the small things and nobody panicked,” he continued. “Joakim said, ‘Don’t panic, nobody panic. We’re going to stay together, they’re going to make their run. No matter what happens, we’re going to win this game.’”
If anything can be said about Noah, who celebrated with his friends and family immediately after the game, it’s that he’s a man of his word.