Noah pushes through pain to fuel Bulls win

Joakim Noah had 11 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes against the Nets in Game 2. Debby Wong/USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK -- The most talked about player on the Chicago Bulls is someone who hasn't played a minute all season, Derrick Rose.

It's time to start talking about someone else -- namely, Joakim Noah.

He's the No. 1 reason why the Bulls are headed back to Chicago all square with the Brooklyn Nets, following a 90-82 victory in Game 2 of their first-round playoff series.

Noah has had far better games statistically than his 11-point, 10-rebound performance on Monday. But the box score doesn't nearly tell the story. Playing through plantar fasciitis in his right foot, which sidelined him for most of the final month of the regular season, Noah was in the middle of almost every key play in the fourth quarter, as the Bulls fought off a Brooklyn rally.

"Jo's giving us everything he has," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "And we're obviously a lot better with him on the floor."

Noah only played 13 minutes in Chicago's 106-89 loss in Game 1 on Saturday, collecting just four points and five rebounds in a game in which the Bulls were outplayed in almost every category.

Chicago looked like a different team from the jump two nights later, particularly at the defensive end. They led 69-57 after three quarters despite the fact that Noah had again struggled, logging just two points and four rebounds in 18 minutes.

But the fourth quarter was a one-man show.

Noah re-entered the game with 7:39 remaining and the Nets on a 9-0 run, having cut the Bulls' lead from 73-59 to 73-68. The Brooklyn fans had awoken, and the pressure was on.

Forty-five seconds later, Noah quieted the crowd with a slam off a dish from Luol Deng, making it 75-68.

On the Bulls' next possession, following a Kris Humphries miss, Noah corralled an offensive rebound and slung the ball back outside to Nate Robinson for an open trey, and it was suddenly a double-digit lead again. Noah scored the Bulls' next bucket, too, off another offensive rebound, to make it 80-68 with 5:33 left.

The Nets made one more run, cutting the deficit to four again at 82-78 with 3:17 to play. But then Deng drained a jumper, Noah made a driving layup and Chicago had the game in hand.

Noah's totals in the fourth quarter? Nine points, six rebounds.

"Gutsy," forward Carlos Boozer said of his teammate's performance. "Come on man, you know what he's going through. Every game is a tough game for him. I went through the same thing two years ago with my little turf toe. I'm just proud of him. He's going out there gutting it for us every night."

Noah himself struggled to explain his brilliant final quarter.

"Just trying to affect the game. Just find a way," Noah said. "I wasn't really thinking too much. I was just hooping. Trying to make plays."

He did admit that playing in New York -- where he was born, and particularly in Brooklyn, where he played his high school ball -- provided some extra motivation.

"No question about it," Noah said. "Just being able to play in the playoffs is something that I'll never take for granted, and just being able to do it in front of my loved ones and my family. It's just something that's really special to me."

The Bulls have played this entire season without Rose, the league's most valuable player in 2010-11, who's been cleared medically following ACL surgery a year ago but still feels less than 100 percent.

Chicago still managed to secure the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference, and now they've snatched home-court advantage in this first-round series -- certainly no small accomplishments.

People will continue to talk about Rose, speculating about whether he should be back on the court by now.

Perhaps they'd be better off devoting their attention to a hobbled veteran who's leaving everything he has on the floor.

"I'm not surprised. He's obviously done a lot of great things for us over the last three years," Thibodeau said. "He hasn't practiced a lot since the All-Star break. We shut him down for quite a period of time. He's willing it is what he's doing, and to his credit."