Joakim Noah -- once Chicago's least favorite son -- turned the tide on one unbelievable play
May 1, 2009, 12:56 AM
By: Wayne Drehs
I had but one thought as I watched it all unfold, one sentence that kept pinballing its way back and forth in my cluttered mind as soon as the unthinkable had happened. The voice was that of legendary broadcaster Jack Buck.
I don't believe what I just saw.
Only Thursday night, there was no Kirk Gibson. No Dennis Eckersley. No ball. No bat. And certainly no World Series.
AP photo/Nam Y. Huh
So let's get this straight. Joakim Noah steals the ball from Paul Pierce
Instead, there was Joakim Noah, with his flowing locks and flailing arms, poking a ball loose and sprinting for the basket with the determination of a fat man chasing a dozen donuts. There was Paul Pierce, the future Hall of Famer who seems to doze off for most of the game but always hits the big shot or makes the big play when it matters most. And this was nothing more than the first round of the NBA playoffs, a fact I seem to be constantly forgetting with every minute the Bulls and Celtics continue to play.
There was Noah, the guy nobody in Chicago truly wanted two years ago, making unquestionably the biggest play of his basketball life in the closing minute of the third overtime Thursday night when he gave Pierce, the future Hall of Famer, a basketball lesson.
First he poked the ball away from Pierce, then outfought him for the loose ball and then began dribbling full speed toward Chicago's basket with Pierce following along stride for stride. If you could have paused the game right then and there, the Las Vegas odds on what was about to happen next would have looked like this:
Noah loses control, dribbles ball off his leg and gives it back to the Celtics: 3-2
Noah loses control, hustles for the loose ball and gets it back for the Bulls: 2-1
Noah is fouled by Pierce: 4-1
Noah dunks the basketball: 15-1
Noah dunks the basketball over Pierce, who uses his sixth foul on Noah, ending his night and giving Chicago the potential for a three-point play: 40-1.
AP photo/Nam Y. Huh
and then dunks on him and draws Pierce's sixth foul?
And yet 40-1 is what happened. The guy nobody wanted, the guy most Bulls fans have spent the past two years (A) booing and (B) figuring out how to get rid of made arguably the biggest play of the game for Chicago. Sure, Derrick Rose's block on Rajon Rondo was just as key, but if Kirk Hinrich makes his layup, that block becomes irrelevant.
In a span of a few seconds, the 6-foot-11 Noah was the center of a potential five-point swing. With the game tied, his steal on Pierce kept the Celtics from taking the lead, then his dunk and subsequent free throw put the Bulls up by three, giving Chicago a lead it would not lose.
Now, suddenly, all that passion, all that energy, all that pumping of the fists and screaming with the apparent intention of popping a vein is perfect. The skipping around the United Center floor after Thursday night's victory, high-fiving everyone from the fans seated in the front row to the Love-A-Bulls to Benny the Bull, perfect.
That's what happens when you pull off the unthinkable. That's what happens when, in the blink of an eye, you lift an entire city off its seat and do something that no one else thought was possible.
And perhaps the best part was the way he did it. It wasn't luck. It wasn't a hot shooting stroke. It was desire. And determination. As soon as Noah had his hands on that ball, he had one thing on his mind. Like an old mule with blinders on, his focus was on doing whatever it took to stuff that ball in the basket. And nobody -- not even Paul Pierce -- was going to stand in his way.
Which leads me to my last thought -- no matter what happens Saturday, no matter whether the Bulls win or the Celtics win, no matter if it's a blowout or a five-overtime thriller, whenever it's finished, every single Chicago sports fan should stand and applaud.
Because for the past two weeks, these two teams have given us seven games of basketball we will never forget. Everyone has played with that same desire. That refusal to go home. Aside from the Game 3 blowout, when it seemed the Bulls were going to be left for dead, every game has been a thriller. And every character has had a story, be it Noah exceeding expectations, Ben Gordon and John Salmons fighting injuries, Pierce and Ray Allen defying age, Rondo emerging as a star or Derrick Rose showing flashes of brilliance. These two teams have taken us on a ride no one could have predicted.
And yet Saturday night, it will all be over. When it is, one team will head home. The other will face the prospect of knowing they somehow need to do that 12 more times to win the NBA title.
Wayne Drehs has been a feature writer for ESPN for nine years. He can be reached by e-mail.