Kirk Hinrich’s and Jimmy Butler’s stifling defense on Deron Williams and Joe Johnson were a crucial factor in the Bulls’ Game 2 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Monday, but coach Tom Thibodeau knows his frontcourt’s availability and health will be important when the two teams square off tonight for Game 3 at the United Center.
Thibodeau said Joakim Noah, who played 13 minutes in Game 1 and 25 minutes in Game 2, will be on a same minute restriction tonight but that he was feeling good during the Bulls’ Thursday morning shootaround at the Berto Center.
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With Noah still unable to play the nearly 37 minutes per game he averaged in the regular season, Thibodeau will again rely on reserve Nazr Mohammed to log significant minutes tonight.
“We need everyone,” Thibodeau said. “Nazr has been huge for us. They’re tough up front so everyone has to be ready.”
Brooklyn’s trio of bigs — starters Brook Lopez and Reggie Evans, and reserve Andray Blatche — posted similar numbers in the first two games of the series, but the way in which they had to fight for open looks around the basket was a factor in the Bulls allowing just 82 points in Monday’s win.
Lopez, Evans and Blatche combined to shoot 15-of-29 for 38 points in Game 1, compared to 13-of-26 for 33 points in Game 2. But Noah and Mohammed were much more active in the Game 2 win, combining for 12 rebounds and three blocks, up from the seven rebounds and two blocks they combined for in Game 1.
Mohammed’s injection into the rotation has been a pleasant surprise for the Bulls. When Noah first missed 12 of 13 games between March and April to rest the plantar fasciitis in his right foot, Mohammed, who had averaged just 12.5 minutes per game in March to date, entered the lineup and performed well for Thibodeau. Excluding a seven-minute performance against the small-lineup Heat, Mohammed averaged 6.6 points and 8.5 rebounds in the 10 games Noah missed — Mohammed sat out the Bulls’ Apr. 11 win over the Knicks.
"Everyone has to stay ready, because you never know how a game unfolds. You could have injury, you could have foul trouble, you could have need. And that’s one of the things that I thought Nazr did so well for us,” Thibodeau said.
“There was a stretch where he wasn’t playing at all and he just stayed ready and when he got the opportunity he played great and that’s one stretch when Jo went out he played great basketball and it’s a testament to his professionalism and what his job is.”
In Game 2 Mohammed played 18 minutes, scored eight points on 4-of-5 shooting and pulled down two rebounds.
Also helping alleviate some of the pressure from Noah’s minute restriction will be Taj Gibson, who missed seven games in April while resting a knee sprain. He logged 21 minutes in each of the Bulls’ last two regular season games and has averaged 17.0 minutes thus far in the playoffs.
Tom Thibodeau said Gibson could see an extended role as his knee continues to build up strength, and that he’ll be deployed against the versatile Lopez and Blatche as needed.
“He’s a very important part of the team,” Thibodeau said of Gibson, “and a lot depends on what they’re doing, too. But his defense and rebounding are something that’s critical for us, so we love his activity, his ability to get to the boards, to get to a second shot, to post up and I think he helps us a lot offensively.”
While the Bulls improved mightily on the defensive end from Games 1 to 2, Thibodeau was quick to denounce that the team was resting on its Monday success. Each game brings its own hurdles, and the Bulls know Brooklyn’s frontcourt will provide a challenge tonight, especially after being limited by their counterparts three days earlier.
“The important thing is any time you win is to not feel too good about yourself and [we] want to analyze what occurred, see the things that you did well,” Thibodeau said. “Also analyze what you didn’t do as well as you could have liked, and then make the necessary adjustments so you can improve.”