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BROOKLYN — With the sold-out crowd all but gone from the Barclays Center in the minutes after Saturday's final buzzer, a lone female voice rang out from the landing above Section 212. Her plaintive cry:
"How could they lose? How could they loooooooooooose?"
Well, ma'am, there were a bunch of reasons — plenty of missed shots, missed rotations, missteps and mistakes along the way — but to a large extent, it boils down to a simple answer: The Chicago Bulls had Joakim Noah, and the Brooklyn Nets didn't.
Sure, the Bulls didn't have Luol Deng, who just left a Chicago hospital after an awful ordeal following a spinal tap to test for viral meningitis (which, thankfully, he doesn't have). They didn't have Kirk Hinrich, ruled out by Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau a little over an hour before tipoff with his badly bruised left calf. And, for the 89th time this season, they didn't have Derrick Rose, who said earlier Saturday his estimated time of arrival is "still up in the air." But they did have Noah, the brand of player who was made for Game 7s and for whom Game 7s were made, and on Saturday, that was enough.
Nets center Brook Lopez had been the best player in this series through six games, but Noah — who once played high school ball at Poly Prep, just a 15- or 20-minute drive away from the Barclays Center (depending on traffic, natch) — was the best player in the billion-dollar building on Saturday night, pacing his shorthanded and overworked squad to a 99-93 win over the Nets that sealed a 4-3 victory in their best-of-seven series.
"Joakim Noah played probably the best game of the season at the right time," Bulls guard Nate Robinson said after the game.
He attacked the glass, attacked Nets drivers penetrating the paint and, time and again, attacked fellow 2013 All-Star Lopez off the dribble, scoring 24 points on 12 for 17 shooting, pulling down 14 rebounds, blocking six shots, dishing two assists and snagging one steal in 41 peerless minutes.
"I'll remember this for the rest of my life," said Noah, who climbed over the baseline seats to hug his mother after the final buzzer sounded.
The 28-year-old big man became just the sixth player since the 1986 season to put up 24-14-6 in a playoff game, joining the likes of Kevin McHale, Patrick Ewing, Mark West (!), Tim Duncan (who's done it twice), Shaquille O'Neal (three times) and Hakeem Olajuwon (four times). And, lest we forget, he did it all while battling through plantar fasciitis in his right foot that, as he recently explained, "feels like you have needles underneath your foot while you’re playing."
"Noah is a warrior," said Nets point guard Deron Williams, who led Brooklyn with 24 points on 8 for 17 shooting, including a 4 for 6 mark from 3-point range, to go with seven assists and six rebounds in 40 minutes. "He battled through his injuries. He had a monster game, and we really had no answer for him tonight."
But while Noah was the night's shining star, he didn't do it alone. In defiance of illness and injury, the Bulls bench validated Thibodeau's time-tested canard that, no matter what, they have enough to win.
Marco Belinelli tied Noah for the team lead with 24 points on 8 for 14 shooting and going 3 for 6 from 3-point land, including a huge long ball with 4:51 left that pushed Chicago's lead back to 10 points and prompted the Italian shooting guard to channel Sam Cassell on his way back up the court. Belinelli would also add a key layup with two minutes left and a pair of free throws in the final 30 seconds that kept Chicago up seven, capping a strong performance that also featured six rebounds, two assists and one steal in 41 minutes.
Robinson, Belinelli's partner in Chicago's starting backcourt, couldn't muster the magic of his Game 4 explosion or the production of his starts in Games 5 and 6, finishing with 12 points on 5 for 14 shooting, four assists and two steals. But he fought through the flu and an inadvertent stomp to the head from Nets forward Gerald Wallace to repeatedly break down the Nets' perimeter defense, forcing Brooklyn back-liners Lopez, Andray Blatche, Reggie Evans and Kris Humphries to rotate to stop penetration, allowing the Bulls to feast on the offensive glass to the tune of 20 second-chance points on 13 offensive rebounds, seven of which were grabbed by Noah.
"Unbelievable," Thibodeau said of Noah's early work on the offensive glass. "There are plays that he makes that are great multiple effort-type plays where he can get quickly to a second or third jump. Very few guys can do that."
"They got too many layups," said Williams. "They got too many easy baskets. We didn't execute our offense or defensive game plan today. We didn't execute in the first half. They beat us to too many loose balls and they got a lot of offensive rebounds. Noah was killing us on the boards today. They came at us, and we didn't match their intensity."
The Bulls rushed Brooklyn out of the gate, grabbing four offensive rebounds in the first three minutes to take an early 9-4 lead. The Nets parried Chicago's initial thrust, drawing within two points in the closing seconds of the first quarter, but Noah found backup Bulls big Taj Gibson for a buzzer-beating baseline jumper to lock down a 29-point opening frame for a Chicago offense that's struggled to score virtually all season long.
In the second quarter, Thibodeau transferred responsibility for checking Williams from the 5-foot-9 Robinson, against whom Williams opened with nine points on 3 for 5 shooting, to 6-foot-7 wing Jimmy Butler, against whom Williams managed just two points on 1 for 4 shooting. With Williams hamstrung, the Nets offense stalled, producing just 19 points on 8-for-20 shooting; the Bulls, on the other hand, continued to cook, with reserve guards Marquis Teague and Daequan Cook ("We have enough to win") dishing six assists without a turnover to pace a 13-for-21, 32-point quarter that had the Bulls up 17 at intermission and sent the Nets to the locker room amid a chorus of boos.
The loudest jeers were reserved for shooting guard Joe Johnson, the team's highest-paid player, who said before Game 6 that he was playing on one leg and came out for Game 7 looking like it. Johnson had no lift, no touch, no rhythm and, at halftime, no points, having gone 0 for 5 from the floor with two turnovers, looking for all the world like a guy who flat-out shouldn't have been playing.
"I don't make excuses," Johnson said after the game. "If I was out there on the floor, then I was able to go, so I don't blame my foot or anything. Like I said, it was just a terrible game."
A terrible game, Nets interim coach P.J. Carlesimo noted, that was brought on by "the injury and Chicago's defense," which combined to hold Johnson to six points on 2 for 14 shooting, including 1 for 9 from 3-point range, in 38 disappointing minutes.
"He has been playing injured and obviously the shot wasn't going down, but he has been so clutch for us in the fourth quarter all year, and we wouldn't be here in Game 7 if it wasn't for him," said Carlesimo, whose own status for next season remains very much an open question. "[...] Again, we didn't lose because of someone not shooting the ball. We lost because [of] the way we didn't match the energy in the first half, and that was the difference in the game."
The tide did turn in the third, with the Nets coming out of the dressing room with a renewed sense of purpose on both the defensive end (holding Chicago to 2 for 8 shooting with three turnovers in the first half of the third quarter) and the glass (five offensive rebounds in the first six minutes). The ramped-up effort, combined with a monster quarter from formerly confidence-devoid swingman Wallace (11 points, 3 for 5 shooting from deep in the quarter) helped the Nets rip off a 20-8 run that got them back in business and lop 10 points off Chicago's lead, heading into the fourth down 82-75.
Brooklyn managed one point in the first 5:15 of the fourth, though, as Chicago extended both its defense and its lead; the two sides began trading buckets midway through the quarter, but the Nets could never make that final push. They drew within four on a Williams 3 that made it 97-93, but Williams and Johnson each missed triples in the final 15 seconds that sealed the Nets' fate.
"I thought for the most part we were there, but I think they had more energy than us in the first half — that really determined the game," said Lopez, who finished with 21 points on 9 for 20 shooting, nine rebounds and two blocks in 36 1/2 minutes. "We got ourselves in a little hole and we fought all the way back, but we just couldn't finish it off."
The Bulls will now travel to meet the top-seeded, well-rested and full-strength Miami Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena on Monday at 7 p.m. Both Hinrich and Deng are listed as day-to-day heading into Game 1; whether or not they can go, Thibodeau remains steadfast in his belief that the next man in line will step up.
"We know how good Miami is, so we're going to have to be at our best or playing great basketball," Thibodeau said. "They're a very deep team, extremely well coached, very well balanced. So we're going to have to be at our best right from the start."
The Nets? They'll stay right here, their first season in Brooklyn and their attempted comeback from a 3-1 deficit coming to an abrupt and unsatisfying end soundtracked by visiting Bulls fans cheering in full throat as the clock ticked down. When they finished and filed out, all that remained was quiet and questions.
"At this point, it is just very hard to step back and have perspective, because it is such a gut wrench to lose this way," Carlesimo said.