DEERFIELD, ILL. - Just when it seemed that the Bulls were back to full strength -- or as close as they’ll get, given Derrick Rose’s continued season-long absence -- that injury bug bites.
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Heading into Saturday’s first-round playoff series opener in Brooklyn, All-Star center Joakim Noah is day-to-day and the possibility that he’ll be hobbled for the entire series in his hometown of New York looms, due to his ongoing bout with plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
“It’s really disappointing for me. You work really hard in the summer and the season to be ready for situations like this. Just to be hurt is really disappointing. It is what it is. We fought hard to get here and I think that we’re a very capable team. It’s going to be an exciting series against Brooklyn,” Noah said after the team’s practice Friday afternoon at the Berto Center. “I’m just taking it game by game. It’s hard, but it’s not about me. I’m just going to do everything I can to get back and help the team as soon as I can. I’m in a lot of pain right now and I’m just trying to do everything to get back out there.
“I’m just taking an lot of anti-inflammatories just to be able to play. It just flares up on me at nights. Even in the limited time I had in the last two games, it wasn’t pretty. It’s painful and I’m just trying to find solutions. It’s tough, but at the end of the day, it’s not about one player. I’m really proud of this team and I think that we put ourselves in a pretty good situation. I think we’re a very capable group regardless, but I definitely want to be there and help us as much as I can,” he continued.
“I’ve got a tear in my foot. It is what it is. I’m upset at myself because I let this linger for a long time and I have no one to blame but myself. I just wish that I was a little bit smarter. I played games in the regular season that I shouldn’t have played. It’s going to be tough, but these are the cards that I was dealt and I’m just going to do the best that I can to get back as quick as I can.
“It’s really hard. This is all the work that you put in is to be in this situation. This is probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with in my career so far,” Noah explained. “Just going back home, playing in these playoff games means the world to me. Not being able to be ready for that is hard. I’m just going to do everything I can to help the team.”
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Noah said he didn’t know if he would miss Saturday’s contest against the Nets at the Barclays Center, but Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau appeared to be bracing for the Bulls to be without the defensive anchor, for at least the short-term future.
“We’ll see. It’s day-to-day. We’ll see how he feels tomorrow,” said Thibodeau, who acknowledged that Noah “didn’t do much” in Friday’s practice. “He has soreness.
“I’m not going to speculate on [whether Noah could miss the entire series]. We’ll just see where he is day-to-day,” he continued. “He’s disappointed. But he’s doing everything he can to get out there. Hopefully it will work out.”
Veteran Chicago native Nazr Mohammed will likely start in Noah’s place, reprising a frequent role from the second half of the regular season.
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Mohammed knows he can’t exactly replicate Noah’s unique game, but plans on bringing his own strengths.
“It’s definitely a challenge, its playoff basketball. The intensity of the games goes up, but no one feels sorry for us, no one cares that we’re not full strength. People could care less if Jo is not healthy, he’s a big part of our team, but I’m going to go out there and follow the game plan, play hard, leave it all on the floor, be physical,” he said.
“Just from me talking to him, Jo is such a passionate person and this is the time of year that he really shines and really looks forward to. I feel bad for him just having to go through the aches and pains this time of year, but he’s going to do everything he can to get healthy, get back on the court and help us anyway he can.”
Despite his age, Mohammed has relatively fresh legs at this late juncture in the campaign, mostly due to being buried on the bench early in the season.
“Yeah, it was the master plan. He told me when they signed me they were going to save me all year, and then at the end unleash me,” Mohammed joked. “No, it was one of those things that happens. Jo was having an All-Star year, playing great. The opportunity wasn’t there a lot at the beginning, but that’s your job as a professional, stay ready. You never know when you’re going to be thrown out there, and the last thing you want to do is not help your team and embarrass yourself.
“No one wants to watch. I didn’t want to watch, but it was my job. I don’t look too far back on that. I didn’t play at the beginning, so what. My team needs me to play good basketball and be solid right now,” he continued. “This team was a No. 1 seed before I got here with Derrick, and without Derrick it’s definitely a different team, but what I bring is just the preparation and the focus. I just tell the guys that it’s a long season and it’s all about focus. Everyone has to be ready. Coach might go to a player that just matches up great with another player, and you may play a whole series, play huge minutes, and then if you win that series you might not play. So that focus of being ready and knowing that your number could be called, knowing that game plan so that everybody is on the same page is just huge.’’
Thibodeau is confident in Mohammed, who will be a primary defender of Nets All-Star center Brook Lopez.
“The second half of the season, he has played very well. We had a stretch where I thought we were playing great basketball prior to Lu going out. Hopefully we can get back to that. You can’t say enough about Nazr’s readiness. Even when he wasn’t playing, he was working extremely hard in practice,” Thibodeau said. “When the opportunity came, he was ready. Guys like that, that’s what they do. They stay ready and when the opportunity presents itself, they take full advantage. That’s what he did. He stays in great shape. He got more comfortable and he performed well. And the team performed well, more importantly.”
Noah chimed in, saying that Mohammed brings to the table, “A lot of experience. Nazr has been working hard all year. He’s been through a lot, not playing at the beginning, just staying ready and now he’s going to start on Saturday. I know he’s excited and being able to do that for your hometown is huge.”
Still, the disappointment in Noah's voice was palpable, as he seemed to become emotional when asked repeatedly about his injury woes.
“I want to be there for my teammates and I think that this is going to be a great series," he said. "We’ve proven all year that we’re capable of beating anybody. I’m excited for us.”
Jimmy Butler added: “It’s tough. You always want Jo out there with you, your leaders in general. But we want him to be healthy, that’s for sure. We don’t want him to make anything worse, but he’ll be coaching us up from in the locker room and we’ll have his spirit from the bench if he’s out there.”