Barring a miracle, Joakim Noah is most likely not going to return to the Chicago Bulls during the first-round series of the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers. The center severely sprained his left ankle during the Bulls’ stunning 79-74 Game 3 loss on Friday night, and he has been in crutches since leaving the arena after the game.
Noah’s injury, coming on the heels of the torn ACL Derrick Rose suffered in Game 1, occurred with about eight minutes left in the third quarter when he completely rolled his ankle on Sixers forward Andre Iguodala’s foot. Miraculously, Noah stayed in the game after suffering the ailment and returned early in the fourth quarter to drain a mid-range jumper, but the way he gingerly moved up and down the court was painful to watch.
Coach Tom Thibodeau said after the Bulls’ walk-through on Saturday morning that Noah is officially “doubtful” to play in Saturday afternoon’s Game 4 and that, as of right now, the degree of the sprain is unknown.
However, some Bulls fans have pointed the finger at Thibodeau because the veteran coach kept Noah on the court for a total of three minutes following the gruesome third-quarter fall. The instant Noah dropped to the floor, the emotional big man winced and screeched in pain, but he tightened his shoe laces, made a couple trips to the Bulls’ locker room to receive treatment and badly wanted to help his team out.
Noah begged to return to the contest, but the onus is on the team’s coaching and medical staff to make the proper decision with the player’s health in mind. Still, it’s a safe bet that the Bulls’ trainers told Thibodeau that Noah couldn’t injure his ankle any further. That would then allow Noah to test out his ankle – which was not 100 percent heading into the playoffs, according to the ESPN broadcast Friday.
“He thought he could go,” Thibodeau told reporters Saturday. “Sometimes you can get through it but obviously he was struggling, so he’s out.”
Bulls players have applauded Noah’s physical and mental toughness, but they know how much his loss will affect the squad’s chances of winning Sunday. The Sixers also believed it was unfortunate to see another Bull hit the deck in ugly fashion.
“He wasn’t moving too well so any time someone goes down like that, I saw the reply on SportsCenter, you feel bad for him,” Sixers center Spencer Hawes said. “Hat’s off to him – it was gutsy trying to come back out there – but you could kind of tell right away it just wasn’t there.
“Until I saw it in slow-mo where they stopped it, I couldn’t tell how bad it was. But you usually don’t see the ankle going 90 degrees like that.”
Noah has averaged 15 points, 9.3 rebounds and three assists while shooting a blistering 73.1 percent from the field in three games against Philadelphia.
“When you see a player like that playing out there with a bum ankle, still giving everything he’s got, he just couldn’t give no more,” John Lucas III said after Friday’s defeat. “He tweaked it two or three more times after he came back out there. It’s tough, just him doing that shows how much he wants to win, shows how much we want to win as a team. I hope he’s OK [and] ready for Sunday.”
Moments after Noah’s fall, Taj Gibson banged his right knee on a Sixer, but he remained in the game and will play in Game 4. He is a candidate to start in place of Noah, although Omer Asik is the favorite to make the first playoff start of his career.
The Bulls have been battling injuries all season long, but the recent string of them appear primed to derail the team’s playoff run – which would make for a disappointing end to a campaign Chicago coaches, players and fans entered with championship aspirations.
Watson searching for his touch: For most of the regular season, C.J. Watson consistently produced in a big way, whether he was replacing Rose in the starting lineup or serving as the reigning NBA MVP’s backup. But in the two games since becoming the full-time starter, Watson has put up a combined 12 points on 4-for-15 shooting, including a scoreless, 0-for-4 performance in Game 3.
Watson has plenty of confidence in his abilities, but the Bulls know they need a better performance out of him on Sunday to reclaim home-court advantage. Lucas has picked up the slack over the last two tilts, scoring 15 points in Game 2 and 12 in Game 3, but the 5-foot-11 guard has been put in tough positions late in the shot clock, especially during the fourth quarter Friday when the offense appeared stagnant and key players didn’t look to assert themselves.
Battle-tested veteran Mike James could very well make his first appearance in the series Sunday if the point-guard situation continues to be an issue.
“C.J. is doing fine,” Thibodeau said. “C.J. is nicked up pretty good too, so he’s giving us everything he has. I thought he got us off to a good start and he has to keep plugging away.”
Chicago’s not-so-finest Brew: As Thibodeau searched for the right combination of players who could help the Bulls pull out a win Friday, Ronnie Brewer was benched while rookie Jimmy Butler played three minutes.
The fact that Brewer failed to log game action was shocking, considering the 6-foot-7 swingman had appeared in all of the team’s games, including starting 43 of the 66 in the regular season. He has just two points on 1-for-6 shooting while playing 13 minutes apiece in two postseason outings.
“[We were] just looking for something different,” Thibodeau told the assembled media. “We wanted to give Jimmy a crack … to see how he would respond out there. He actually didn’t play a lot of minutes, but I liked the way he played.”