Posted May 5 2012 10:31AM
PHILADELPHIA -- So this is the way the Chicago Bulls' playoff world ends, not with a bang but with another limper.
There was nowhere to run even if Joakim Noah could have done so, not with reporters and cameramen tracking him fore and aft as he moved gingerly through the hallways of the Wells Fargo Center late Friday night.
From the visitors' locker room down to the X-ray room. Back again, where Noah put a black sock over the aircast on the throbbing left ankle that ended his night in the Bulls' 79-74 collapse in Game 3 of their first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Finally, from the locker room through the loading dock area and, carefully, down a ramp to where one of the team buses was waiting. With those tricky steps at the front door.
Noah, of course, was on crutches. Who among the Bulls isn't these days, or so it seems. Crutches have become a must-have accessory in their little corner of the NBA the way fat, overpriced headphones are for the rest of the league. Being a 7-footer, Noah's were longer than the ones Derrick Rose was hobbling around on the other day at United Center. Teammate Taj Gibson nearly got fitted for a pair Friday too.
Gibson was able to play after wrenching his right knee and falling to the floor, one more scary, demoralizing moment for Chicago and its fans in the first week of the 2012 postseason. Noah could only try. It did not go well.
The motor and heart of the Bulls -- especially with Rose done with that torn ACL in his left knee -- Noah rolled his ankle on a break up the lane in the third quarter. Wait, that doesn't quite capture it: Noah planted in full stride, stepped on Andre Iguodala's foot and wound up with his ankle at 90 degrees, the sole of his sneaker pointing sideways. After the requisite writhing on the deck, he managed to stay in the game. Shot his free throws, gutted through 71 seconds, then subbed out for what looked to be for good.
Until, that is, he returned with 10:05 left in the fourth. Bad enough that Noah was dragging that left leg like a monster-movie mummy -- he also looked to be in significant and worsening pain. Improbably, he hit one set shot with 9:35 left that made it 69-56, but the hurting Bulls center otherwise had as much business on the court as you or I would have.
"He wanted to give it a shot," said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. "Once we saw he was having a hard time moving, that was it."
Thibodeau got Noah out after two uncomfortable minutes (it hurt just to watch) but the damage had begun. It was 69-60 when Noah exited, with the Bulls in the process of failing on 12 of 13 possessions. Philadelphia -- at home, younger and smelling blood from the East's No. 1 seed -- came hard, led by the pressure and extra efforts of guards Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday and the jump-shooting of center Spencer Hawes.
Turner's second and third efforts in the final minute earned a pair of free throws that sealed it and praise from coach Doug Collins as "the singular biggest play of the year for us." That only tracks if the Game 3 victory leads to something bigger ... which it looks quite likely to do. Like, hmm, the fifth No. 8 vs. No. 1 upset in NBA playoff history?
Despite Thibodeau's mantra through this injury-riddled season that "We have more than enough to win," the Bulls really do not. Not now. Not with both Rose and Noah out, not with Luol Deng still playing -- lest we forget -- with a torn ligament in his left wrist. Not with Gibson almost going down too, not with fatigue and wear accelerating on those left standing.
For the past week, people have wondered where the Bulls' emotional needle was after the loss of Rose, the massive readjustment of their playoff aspirations. But the physical needle matters now, too. The games are coming faster, every other day for the rest of this round.
Without Rose, the Bulls' ballhandling, late-game and late-clock scoring and ability to apply pressure on Philadelphia's defense are way down. Without Noah, an unorthodox yet savvy facilitator with the ball, their offensive gears can grind to a halt completely. They scored 35 points after halftime Friday, 14 in the fourth quarter.
Deng has been funkified by Iguodala's defense, and even if there's a vice-versa component to it at the other end, the Sixers have more options to score. Boozer is not and will not get anything done in the low post -- he scored 18 points Friday but didn't get to the line even once and has shot three free throws in the series. He is a burly, mid-range jump shooter who never makes the Sixers' D sweat.
Richard Hamilton can run his curls and cuts all night long but there really isn't anyone to deliver the ball when and where he needs it. Ditto for Kyle Korver. C.J. Watson has demonstrated that, as Rose's replacement, he's a good regular-season backup. John Lucas III searches so much for his own shots, he starts to run plays with five seconds on the shot clock.
Crutches. They're a reminder of what Chicago and so many others went through in the irregular season. They're all too real and necessary now for the Bulls' best players. And they're a symbol for how the offense is going. It was a long shot from the start that the Bulls could patch together their rotation in time for a serious playoff push. That vision ended just shy of 47 minutes in Game 1.
So here they are, on the first Saturday in May, without a run for the Roses. Or the Noahs. Or any of the other Bulls players and his peeps.
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