CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Cavaliers were able to pull something off on Saturday afternoon that most teams couldn't do all season. It's the biggest reason why they knocked off the Chicago Bulls 96-83 and lead this Eastern Conference quarterfinal 1-0.
They figured out a way to take a healthy Joakim Noah out of the game.
The Bulls' emotional leader was mired in foul trouble from the start and was not able to lead his team on the glass and in the paint the way he had over the past two weeks. He only played 35 minutes and managed this stat line in the process: 10 points, eight rebounds, five fouls, three assists and three turnovers.
"I wasn't really happy with the way I played today," Noah said. "I feel like I have to come out and bring a little more energy."
Did anyone really think you would hear that from Noah at any point during this series?
It's not that he wasn't playing hard. He was -- as usual. It's just that he and the Bulls were taken out of their respective games so early that by the time they had gotten back on track it was too late.
"It affected me a little bit," he said of the early foul trouble.
But what affected Noah and the Bulls more was the massive front line consisting of Shaquille O'Neal and Anderson Varejao. They not only got Noah in foul trouble, they also made him settle for jump shots instead of the short putbacks that he has made a living off of over the past few weeks.
The Cavaliers out-rebounded the Bulls 50-38 and seemed to break their will down low.
"I thought our effort going after the ball was terrific," Cavs coach Mike Brown said. "Coming up with extra possessions, which is a big thing in the playoffs, was good tonight. We were good in that area, but Noah and their other bigs logged a lot of minutes, and we feel that we have capable bigs that can go in and give each other a rest ... our bigs played a terrific game tonight."
Specifically, it was O'Neal who seemed to give Noah the most problems down low. After missing nearly two months because of a broken thumb, the future Hall of Famer seemed to frustrate Noah and bully him underneath.
"I think Shaq played well," Noah said. "I just felt like a few of those calls were a little questionable. But you are playing Shaquille O'Neal, somebody who has been here before. He's been in this position before, won championships. For being out that long, conditioning-wise, he wasn't that bad at all. He got his hands on a lot of basketballs. On my drives he got a few swipes down. He did a good job. But we'll be ready for Monday's game."
Plantar fasciitis is no match for a massive, future Hall of Fame center.
While Noah's optimism is honorable, if Shaq continues to torment the floppy-haired big man, the Bulls will not last past next weekend.
The Cavs didn't just win a game on Saturday, they laid down a blueprint.
If you can lock down Noah and limit his energy, the Bulls don't stand much of a chance of winning. The Cavs allowed Rose to take 28 shots and figured the rest of the team couldn't beat them.
They were right.
The rest of the team combined for just 55 points.
"We need [Noah] to be in the game with his strength and rebounding ability," Del Negro said. "Shaq is a big body. He's going to wear you down a little bit. We tried to get Brad on him to free Joakim up a little bit, but then you have to have Jo on [Antwan] Jamison who spreads him out a little bit and gets lifted on the weak side.You have to pick your spots with that.
"Joakim has been fantastic. He had a solid game, but he knows he can play better, and we're going to need him to."
His teammates know that they will have a hard time competing without him.
"It's tough," veteran guard Kirk Hinrich said of Noah's foul trouble. "He does a lot for us. He's one of our main energy guys, our leading rebounder, so of course we miss him when he gets fouls. But it's going to happen from time to time, and it's going to be very challenging for him to play physical and stay in the game."
"Jo's going to play hard," Bulls forward Luol Deng added. "We know that. [The Cavs] are going to do what they're going to do: dump the ball in, try to wear him out. We got to go in there and help them. We just got to keep battling."
The problem is that the Bulls don't have another option when Noah goes to the bench. Rose has the ability to take over games, and is definitely the most talented player on the team, but his teammates don't feed off his presence the same way they do when Noah is on the floor.
The big seven-footer realizes this, and that's why he knows he has to find a way to stay on the floor for Game 2 on Monday night.
"This is the way it is," he said of facing O'Neal and the Cavs. "I wouldn't have it any other way. We are playing against the best team, and we fought pretty hard tonight. We just have to stay positive and hopefully things will go our way next game."
The only way they will is if Noah can figure out a way to move the 330-pound immovable object and dominate the rim the same way he has done all season.