Shortly after Chicago's Game 7 victory was over the Brooklyn Nets, Bulls center Joakim Noah sat shirtless with ice wrapped around both knees and his feet soaking in ice water.
Noah recalled how he could barely walk the day before the NBA playoffs began because of foot problems. But on Saturday night he all but ran the Nets out of the playoffs with 24 points, 14 rebounds and six blocked shots in powering the Bulls to a 99-93 first-round playoff victory before 17,732 disappointed fans at the Barclays Center.
Because of Noah, the Bulls, riddled by injuries this season, move on to meet the defending champion Heat on Monday in Miami.
"I'm just so proud of this team, we've been fighting through so much all year," said Noah, who hit 12 of 17 shots from the field and played nearly 41 minutes. "Before this series, I didn't know if I was going to be able to play, I could barely walk. To win Game 7 like this in front of my family in Brooklyn, I'll remember this the rest of my life."
Chicago also received 24 points from guard Marco Belinelli, 17 from Carlos Boozer and 12 from Nate Robinson.
Deron Williams led the Nets with 24 points, Brook Lopez ended with 21 and Gerald Wallace scored 19. But in the end, it was the intensity that Noah brought to the game that beat the Nets.
"They beat us to too many loose balls and they got a lot of offensive rebounds," Williams said. "Noah was killing us on the boards. They came at us and we didn't match their intensity."
The Nets never led in the game and that was because of Noah, who had five offensive boards and 10 points in the first quarter.
"He didn't have a good game, he had a magnificent game," Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo said of Noah.
The Nets, down by as much as 17 points in the first half, managed to battle back in the second half. But after Williams nailed a 3-pointer with 26.1 seconds left, Belinelli sank two foul shots to seal it.
The Nets began to melt under the pressure in the fourth quarter as Kris Humphries missed two free throws and Lopez had his shot blocked by Noah. After the block, Boozer drove for two points that gave Chicago an 84-76 advantage with 7:08 to go.
Williams got the crowd back in it with a 3-pointer that sliced the Brooklyn deficit to 86-81 with 6:09 left.
The Barclays crowd was chanting "de-fense, de-fense" when Robinson, who scored 34 points in Chicago's triple-overtime victory in Game 4, entered the game with 5:45 showing. Ten seconds later, the chants were silenced by Robinson's 17-foot jumper.
Lopez missed a shot at the other end and Noah grabbed the board, leading to a 3-pointer by Belinelli that made it 91-81 with 5:11 left.
After the Nets were outscored 32-24 in the paint in the first half, they began to attack the rim in the third quarter. Wallace scored 11 points off a dunk and three 3-pointers.
Lopez spun around Noah and scored on a reverse layup with 2:03 left in the third to cut the Nets' deficit to 78-72. But Noah answered with a drive for a dunk a few seconds later and then drove to the basket and connected again, helping Chicago to an 82-75 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
The Nets shot 56.6 percent from the floor in the first quarter, but the Bulls led 29-25 as Noah came up big with 10 points, five rebounds, an assist and a steal. Robinson hit two 3-pointers in the first quarter for Chicago.
Noah was the spark in the first half for the Bulls, who shot 56.6 percent from the field and made all five free throws to take a 61-44 lead. Noah had 16 points in the first half, connecting on 8 of 11 shots from the floor, and had six offensive boards.
NOTES: The Bulls won a road Game 7 for the first time in seven tries. ... The Nets were trying to become the ninth team in NBA history to win a series after being down 3-1. ... Williams was asked if Carlesimo should be brought back and the point guard said yes. "I'd love to see him back, but as you know, that's not up to me," Williams said. ... Noah blocked five Lopez shots. ... Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich (calf) was placed on the inactive list for the third straight game, joining Luol Deng (virus) and Derrick Rose (knee). ... The Nets' only other Game 7 was a 90-69 loss at Detroit in 2004. ... Chicago held a 52-44 points advantage in the paint. ... Nets guard Joe Johnson, who was playing on an injured foot, was held to six points, making 2 of 14 shots from the field, including 1 of 9 from 3-point range.
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