BROOKLYN -- It was very much a team effort: The Bulls and the Nets worked together to produce a Game 7 that Joakim Noah will never forget. He grabbed a courageous 99-93 win Saturday that Chicago had no business winning, and the Nets stepped aside and let him grab it.
From the start the Bulls center was cutting inside them and reaching over and around his hosts for offensive rebounds -- five in the opening 11 minutes -- and the Nets, to their own discredit, could not have been more accommodating. One team had a predominance of talent, the other team had all of the excuses to give up and go home. Instead, the Bulls will go onto Miami, while the Nets will spend the next several days searching for a coach who can do for their talent as much as Tom Thibodeau did for a rotation of Bulls who never could have dreamt of coming up so big in a seventh game on the road.
Thibodeau is like an NFL coach on an NBA sideline. He looks, sounds and demands of his players as if every day is Sunday. And so, even though Derrick Rose (knee), Kirk Hinrich (calf) and Luol Deng (illness) were sidelined and their replacements were trying to win far from home, this was never a fair fight. P.J. Carlesimo took over the Nets after Christmas and did well to organize their run to homecourt advantage as an interim coach. But there was no way that he, on short notice, could overcome the incessant maintenance of the highest standards laid down by Thibodeau over the last three years in Chicago.
Noah was the beneficiary of those demands Saturday, and how often must Thibodeau have angered or frustrated him over the last three years with his relentless insistence on effort and attention to details? It could not have been easy. It had to be humbling. In the end it would separate him from the Nets' quartet of more accomplished and altogether less ambitious All-Stars. When the Bulls were beaten Wednesday in Chicago for their second straight loss, and appeared to be on the verge of becoming the ninth team in league history to blow a 3-1 series lead, Noah said: "We're going to go into a hostile environment in Brooklyn and we're going to win."
He was the French Joe Namath, and the environment here turned out to be not so hostile. In 41 minutes Noah produced 24 points -- his second-highest total of the season at a time when his team had no other options -- and 14 rebounds overall, including seven on the offensive glass to help generate many of Chicago's 20 second-chance points. He also blocked six shots, and five of them were suffered by the Nets' taller center Brook Lopez, who otherwise was nine-for-15 for his 21 points.
"We had just lost two in a row," said Noah by way of explaining his promise to win Game 7. "I just felt like we was going through a lot with Lu being out. He's been a warrior for us all year, and I know how hard it must be for him to sit out big games like this. It's really hard. I just wanted our team to be really confident and believe that we could get it done."
Wallace (19 points and 5 assists) and Reggie Evans (13 rebounds) might also be "warriors," especially for their shared third-quarter role in slashing 10 points off the stunning 17-point advantage the Bulls had carried into halftime. But effort means nothing if it lacks purpose, and little leadership had been purchased by the Nets' $84 million payroll. The Nets tried to buy it, and the Bulls wound up developing it. "There's a lot of guys that make us a team of leaders," said Thibodeau, who could count on point guard Nate Robinson (12 points and 4 assists), who had been dumped several times by teams in his own career and been refused by many more before he came off the bench to steal Game 4 with 34 points in triple-overtime.
He could count on second-year swingman Jimmy Butler, who played every second while committing one turnover to go with his four assists and nine points, and the defense he played against Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, whose bout of plantar fasciitis surely contributed to his two-for-14 (six points and three turnovers) showing. Faced with a deficit of six to 10 points over the closing five minutes, Williams appeared to pass up shots and then second-guessed himself for it. "With Jimmy on me, he's a talented, more athletic defender," said Williams, whose stat line of 24 points and seven assists gave the appearance of a greater role than he actually played. "When I do pick-and-roll they bring two or three defenders over -- I have to get rid of the ball, I don't want to take bad shots.
"I was just trying to play my game. You always -- when you lose -- you wish you could have done more. I definitely do."
Thibodeau could also count on Marco Belinelli (24 points and six rebounds), who spent his first two years with Golden State never getting off the bench for a majority of the games. Yet it was Belinelli who, for the second straight game, was now coming up big as a most unlikely go-to scorer, whether by driving to the basket or sinking crucial threes. And it was Belinelli who was designated to receive the ball and sink the icing free throws down the stretch of Game 7 as fans began to get up and walk out of their beautiful new arena prematurely.
Most surprisingly of all, Thibodeau was counting on Noah. "Before this series I didn't know if I was going to be able to play," said Noah. "I could barely walk."
While Johnson's plantar fasciitis regressed, Noah's miraculously cleared up enough for him to be able to eventually make promises he could keep. Before the opening tip he was already out on the court, waiting for Carlos Boozer (17 points, seven rebounds) and the rest to join him. When the Bulls won the opening tip, they heard Noah shouting as loudly as if they'd blocked a shot in the final minutes. After the Bulls ended the first quarter with a meaningful 29-25 lead, he was leaning into the huddle to shout encouragement to his replacement Taj Gibson. And when the Nets were finishing the half with a revealing one-for-eight slump that the Bulls turned into a 15-2 run, the game was, as he alone predicted, Noah's to lose.
Now the Bulls fly down to Miami in hope that Hinrich and Deng can recover in time to give them another puncher's chance. In the meantime, Noah was celebrating after the game as if he were standing at a podium in a tuxedo. He talked about having his family here in Brooklyn to see him play the game of his life, and then he went onto thank all of the therapists and trainers who had helped him recover physically, including someone named David. "I don't even know his last name," said Noah.
He sounded as if this was his big night at the Academy Awards. But this was no act he had put on. This was, as the Nets discovered, the real thing.