Noah reminds Nets what they lack as Bulls even series

Luol Deng, Joakim Noah
Joakim Noah (13) and Luol Deng (9) celebrated as the clock approached zero. (AP)
Luol Deng, Joakim Noah
Joakim Noah (13) and Luol Deng (9) celebrated as the clock approached zero. (AP)

All that momentum the Brooklyn Nets gained with an emphatic Game 1 victory came to a screeching halt Monday night.

Yes, just one game after the Brooklyn Nets played arguably their best two-way basketball of the season, one game after shooting 56% against one of the league’s best defenses, one game after making Luol Deng look like a fool and the Chicago Bulls interior defense look like the Bobcats, Joakim Noah reminded them emphatically: as long as Noah has 1.5 effective feet, the Nets have an uphill battle to win this series.

After a 90-82 loss to the Bulls made the Nets the first team to lose at home in the playoffs this year, costing the Nets home-court advantage, the feeling was evident on Deron Williams’s face; the star point guard shot 1-9 from the field, only took three shots in the paint all night, and kept his eyes down as he answered each question in front of a scrum of two dozen reporters. This Williams was a far cry from the one that shot 7-8 in the restricted area Saturday night, the one that turned in a sublime performance against a defense “anchored” by Carlos Boozer, and threw down perhaps the most emphatic slam by a Brooklyn Nets player this year. No, that Williams was a distant memory on Monday night, as was the case for almost every Nets player from Game 1.

The Nets spent nearly $330 million this offseason to sign & acquire their core: Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez, and Gerald Wallace took the majority of that money, but none of them were able to do what Noah did for the Bulls Monday night. While Noah’s numbers may seem pedestrian — 10 points, 10 rebounds on 4-8 shooting — his impact in the fourth quarter was anything but.

With a non-hobbled Noah in the game, the complexion of the Bulls’ defense suddenly code-switched: the paint was packed, the rim protected. A Nets team that scored 56 points in the paint two nights earlier could only muster 30. Reggie Evans can do that in spurts, and Lopez has made strides, but neither has the quickness nor defensive acumen to lock down like Noah.

“He was huge,” Williams said of Noah, particularly in that final frame. “It felt like he was moving a lot better out there.”

Noah, who played over 25 minutes despite a tear in his plantar fascia — the connective tissue in your foot that holds your heel and toes together — hit all three of his shots in the fourth quarter: a dunk, a layup, and a tip-in, adding six rebounds (three offensive) in the quarter en route to the victory.

“He got a couple of offensive rebounds that really hurt us at crucial times when it felt like we were chipping away,” Williams added.

The Nets, who trailed by as much as 14 in the fourth quarter, cut the lead all the way to four after back-to-back three-pointers by Joe Johnson — who finished the night with 17 points on 6-18 shooting — put the score at 80-76 with just over four minutes left. A third Johnson three-pointer could have cut the lead to one, but the shot bounced away, and Chicago rattled off a quick 7-2 run — capped, of course, by a sequence where Noah made driving layup, blocked a Brook Lopez attempt, and drew a foul — to cement the final outcome and even the series at one game apiece.

Wallace, who finished 1-7 from the field and struggled to re-enter the rotation after getting two chippy fouls called against him in the first quarter, called the game a “rude awakening.”

“I hope it grounds us,” Wallace monotoned after the game. “I hope it brings us to earth. We had an amazing night where we probably could’ve beat anybody anywhere in Game 1, and then we had a night where we struggled offensively.”

(As for those fouls? “Bull.”)

Before those fateful final moments, the Nets were done in by what’s been their Achilles heel (or should I say plantar fasciitis?) this season: a frightening third quarter. The Nets shot just 2-19 in the third, and while some of that was due purely to isolation-heavy, poor offense, they also just missed open shots. The Bulls outscored the Nets 22-11 in the third quarter of a game they won by eight points. You do the math.

Or don’t, just look at this shot chart from the third quarter, appropriately titled “Welp.”

the Nets will hold practice next Wednesday before traveling for Game 3, taking place Thursday in Chicago at 8:30 P.M. The good news for Brooklyn? By then, this game can be as distant a memory as Game 1 was Monday night.

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