By Joe Manganiello
The Miami Heat won 66 games, had a historic 27-game win streak and is undeniably the favorite to win the NBA title.
But just a little over two weeks into the post-season, No. 1 Miami finds itself down 1-0 in a “This Is Going To Be Much Harder Than We Thought” series with the No. 5 (and ailing) Chicago.
I was wrong about the Chicago Bulls. I had the Nets winning game seven, and I had all the reasons figured out. I thought Brook Lopez would be the best player on the floor, that Deron Williams would control the tempo of the game and incite the Brooklyn fans, and P.J. Carlesimo would recognize the fragility of his job and find a way to net the biggest victory of his career.
Instead, a hobbled, sickly and undermanned Bulls team got up early (+17 at the half) and held the Nets to 18 points in the fourth quarter of the 99-93 win. Jimmy Butler played a full 48:00 minutes for the third consecutive game; Marco Belinelli played 41+ minutes and scored 22+ points for the second game in a row; and the Bulls out-shot the Nets in all three categories.
But the most important factor for the Bulls against the Nets was Joakim Noah, the NBA’s most underrated player and the key to the Miami Heat/Chicago Bulls series.
Noah has been undervalued since he started playing nationally televised basketball. He was the best player on two national championship teams at Florida, but is routinely overshadowed by players like Tyler Hansbrough on “Best College Basketball Players of the 2000s” lists like this one.
(Noah would get his revenge on Hansbrough here.)
After passing up the opportunity to be a Top 2 pick in 2006, Noah championed the Gators again in 2007. If anything, Noah was a better player in 2007, yet his draft stock inexplicably fell. Noah dropped to the Bulls at No. 9, where he was drafted after international unknown Yi Jianlian (Milwaukee Bucks) and freshman North Carolina Tarheel Brandan Wright (Golden State traded for his rights after the Charlotte Bobcats drafted him).
Sidebar: Marc Gasol went in the second round of the 2007 draft to the Lakers. Now arguably the game’s best center, how ridiculous is it that six years ago, despite his last name, he was virtually unknown?
Noah made a pretty immediate impact at the next level, but he never seemed to earn all that much credit. He had an incredible performance in game six of the 2009 Boston/Chicago series, including this play, which pushed the Celtics to a game seven. The following season, he averaged a double-double for the season. But his role with the franchise was far from set in stone; rumors about the Bulls shopping Noah for Carmelo Anthony and other star players dominated headlines through the ’09-’10 season.
Even now that the Bulls have kept Noah, built their defense around him and won 71 percent of its games the last three seasons, Noah still very rarely gets the national credit he deserves. Noah didn’t make an All-Star team until this season. He received one first place vote for Defensive Player of the Year in 2011, none in 2012 and he finished in fourth-place this year when he actually might have had the best argument.
The Bulls have been labeled the “Rose-less Bulls” all season, with little to no attention paid to Noah’s performance as the best player on this team: he averaged 12-11-4-2-1 and was the leader on a team that never dipped out of the playoff picture the entire season.
Noah averaged 11.4 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.1 blocks in the Nets series, which only tells a piece of the story. He was the best player on either side, physically leading the Bulls on both ends of the floor and emotionally leading the Bulls as he, like so many of his teammates, was dealing with a nagging injury.
After a terrible game one in Brooklyn, Noah posted a double-double in game two, helping Chicago break Brooklyn’s home-court advantage. Noah was barely in game three because of his foot injury, but bounced back for a 15-13-4 outing in game four, and the Bulls found themselves ahead 3-1 in the series.
Noah struggled in game five, however, scoring just 11 points in 28 minutes with his hobbled foot, and the Bulls lost. The momentum was back on Brooklyn’s side. Talk of “where’s Derrick Rose” was starting to pick up steam, as if the Bulls suddenly couldn’t win the series without him. The Nets were healthier, had more depth and Lopez was positioning to assert himself as the best player in the series. The Bulls got down early in game six, and despite outscoring the Nets +3 over the final three quarters, the Nets held onto the win, forcing a game seven back in Brooklyn.
The odds were even further stacked against the Bulls in game seven with Deng and Hinrich out. Noah (who put up 14 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 blocks in game six’s loss) needed to take his game up another notch if the Bulls were going to take game seven in the Barclays Center.
Noah’s line in game seven: 12-17 FG, 24 points, 14 rebounds, two assists and six blocks (SIX BLOCKS?!!) in 41 minutes.
And with that, the Bulls were into round two.
Sidebar: Were the Nets disappointing this season or exactly what we thought they’d be?
After struggling early, the Nets climbed up to the No. 4 seed in the conference, turned Lopez into the premier offensive big man in the East, they got Deron Williams out of a year-and-a-half slump during the second half of the season, and they gave their fans something to cheer into early-May. It was the Nets best season since 2006, when Jason Kidd was in his prime and they advanced to the second round.
I wrote about the Nets twice in the off-season: first about their embarrassing advertising campaign; second in my preview of the Atlantic division where I predicted the Nets to finish fourth (if you’re curious, here’s part two of my Atlantic division preview). Yes, they finished much higher than fourth in their division. But keep in mind (a) Andrew Bynum‘s injury decimated the 76ers season on/off the court; (b) Rajon Rondo‘s injury set the C’s up for a low seed; and (c) If Derrick Rose is healthy, the Bulls are the No. 2 seed, pushing the Nets down in the standings. The Nets caught a lot of breaks, to say the least.
But at the end of the day, this was a disappointing season for Brooklyn because they should have won game seven. Lopez shouldn’t have allowed an injured Noah to outplay him in three of the final four games. Williams should have been too much for Hinrich/Robinson over the duration of the series. Joe Johnson should have shown up for more than just three of the seven games. But these things didn’t happen.
While the Nets are stuck with this expensive, aging nucleus, the rest of the eastern conference is either younger, better or both. The Nets are in the worst position a team can be in: they are too good to acquire lottery talent but not good enough to compete for rings. That is what’s disappointing, not the wins/losses of ’12-’13, but the inevitability that this will be the Brooklyn Nets for the next four years.
Chicago was supposed to enter the series with Miami tired and outmatched. That’s not what happened Monday and, if you think about it, why would it have been? The Bulls are coached up as well as any team in the Association, they almost never make a mistake on defense and they close out games as well as any anybody. With Hinrich scratched for game one, Tom Thibodeau used Robinson (career averages: 11.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg and 3.0 apg) and Belinelli (9.0 ppg, 1.8 rpg and 1.5 apg) for over forty minutes each against Miami, and the guards combined for 37 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.
Butler, Boozer and Gibson held down the forward spots for most of the game, more than making up for Luol Deng‘s absence. Butler did an amazing job with LeBron James and scored 21 points, while Boozer (25:24) and Gibson (24:43) split time and came up with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
Noah added 13-11-4 while going perfect from the charity stripe, and his defensive energy was intoxicating. He also made this play.
As the team gets set to play game two Wednesday, Noah and the Bulls are well aware that every night is only going to get harder. Most nights Miami isn’t going to shoot as poorly as they did in game one; LeBron is going to have nights in this series where it seems like there isn’t anything that can slow him down; and yes, eventually, playing seven guys while the roster is fragmented by injury and sickness will cost the Bulls their legs.
Noah and the Bulls also are dealing with the off the court issues surrounding Rose. Look, everyone has an opinion on whether or not he should be out there. As far as I see it, until Rose is ready to play, the only opinion of Rose that matters is that of his teammates. You want to know what Noah thinks about the scrutiny his teammate and friend is getting? He thinks it’s stupid.
“Everybody who hasn’t been in that situation before should really shut up,” Noah said. “It’s unfair to him and his team. We’re fighting. It’s crazy to me. He’s tough as nails. He doesn’t let anything affect him.”
That’s what matters. If Rose isn’t playing, then he isn’t playing; Noah understands that it is his job as the leader of this team to deflect any negative energy away from the team. He also states clearly the current mantra of the Bulls: they are fighting. They play hard, smart and physical basketball. It isn’t pretty and it doesn’t have to be. And that’s Noah. Nothing about him is pretty, and that works. In a series where Miami is expected to win every game, Noah and the Bulls have the potential to steal more than just game one from the Heat, if they fight for it.