In the Wake of the News
11:41 PM CDT, May 4, 2013
NEW YORK — Emotion carried Joakim Noah off the Barclays Center court and into the first row of seats.
The only person who could take Noah away from Bulls teammates and coaches celebrating an inspired 99-93 victory Saturday night over the Nets in Game 7 wore a red T-shirt and proud smile. As Noah stepped over a table to hug his mother, Cecilia Rodhe, he let out a primal scream of exhilaration.
"I love you, Mommy!" Noah said.
All over, Bulls fans were screaming the same to Noah after he backed up his bold guarantee.
In an epic performance in Brooklyn defined by desire, Noah replaced Jay-Z as King of New York for one night and the Bulls filled Chicago with enough pride to last an offseason no matter what happens against the Heat.
The short-handed Bulls eliminating the Nets for the first Game 7 road victory in franchise history provided one of the more impressive, inspiring efforts from a Chicago team you ever will see. Unlike the Bears and White Sox last fall, the Bulls finished what they started to win something of significance.
Try telling a tough-minded Bulls team that dealt with adversity from Day One of The Season Without Derrick Rose that winning a first-round series meant nothing.
"I'll remember this the rest of my life,'' said Noah, who scored 24 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked six shots. "It means the world to me.''
It means this Bulls season will go down as a success even if LeBron James and Dwyane Wade expose every weakness in the next series. It means Tom Thibodeau gave us another reminder why he is an elite NBA head coach.
Traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge stopped in both directions Saturday afternoon long enough to make the Bulls late for warm-ups as police talked a man out of jumping. It wasn't Thibodeau.
But nobody would have blamed Thibodeau for feeling despondent before heading into the biggest game of the year with his smallest roster yet. Not with Luol Deng staying back in Chicago because of complications from a spinal tap, Kirk Hinrich missing the game with a calf injury and Rose making us roll our eyes again with more indecipherable mumbo-jumbo at the morning shootaround.
Through all the potential distractions, Thibodeau maintained laser-like focus the Bulls copied. How did the short-handed Bulls overwhelm the deeper, more talented Nets?
They did it with energy, intelligence and intensity that remain in style in the NBA thanks to grinders like Thibodeau. They did it with unexpected contributions from a backcourt of rookie Marquis Teague and Daequan Cook, two backups who don't play enough to know how to spell their names without looking them up. They did it with offensive-minded guys who found invaluable roles for their defensive-minded head coach, Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli, hitting big shot after big shot. They did it with ironman Jimmy Butler drilling key shots, especially when the Nets made the run everybody knew was coming.
They did it just as Thibodeau expected. Just as Thibs demanded.
"Our team has the belief they can win every night," Thibodeau said.
Thibodeau never once believed the Bulls might not have enough to beat the Nets so his players didn't. The Bulls had every reason to lose this game but Thibodeau couldn't come up with any.
A significant contrast in coaching styles came beforehand when, minutes after Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo described Game 7s in almost poetic terms, Thibodeau put the next 48 minutes in perspective as only he can.
"To me, there's not a lot that is different,'' Thibodeau said. "The challenge is to remain focused.''
From the opening tipoff, the Bulls conquered that challenge.
The Nets played like a team playing in Brooklyn's first Game 7 since the 1956 Dodgers and afraid of spending the summer being labeled colossal chokers by the New York tabloids. Brooklyn Nots. Meanwhile, the Bulls took the court like a bunch of guys trying to make the roster.
"Guys like Charles Barkley and Shaq (O'Neal) counted us out,'' Robinson said. "That gave us great motivation.''
It led to great execution.
Before Game 5, when the Bulls had a comfortable 3-1 series lead, Gar Forman was watching players warm up when I marveled at Robinson's Game 4 heroics. I asked Forman if he ever could have envisioned the 5-foot-9 Rose replacement playing such a major role for a team that won a playoff series when he signed him last summer.
Forman laughed uncomfortably.
"We haven't won anything yet,'' Forman said. "We have a lot of work to do.''
With the season on the line Saturday night, the Bulls showed the NBA the value of hard work — and sent the Nets on an early vacation.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC