By K.C. Johnson
As the United Center rocked and the Bulls celebrated Marco Belinelli’s go-ahead, three-point play with 7.5 seconds left, Joakim Noah remained down in the photographer’s pit along the baseline, cameras and cheerleaders all around him.
“I didn’t really see the play,” Noah said. “I had the cheerleaders’ pom-poms in my face.”
His teammates saw it, which is why they were celebrating the shot that sealed the Bulls’ stirring 85-82 comeback over the Pistons, their 17th straight victory in this series.
It marked the second time in just more than a month the Bulls erased a 17-point deficit against the Pistons to prevail.
And yet Noah, who had authored, really, the play of the season – one that defines the heart and hustle that has the Derrick Rose-less Bulls on pace for 50 victories now that the midway point has been reached – remained down.
“We were over there celebrating and he was still knocked over by the cheerleaders,” said Nate Robinson, who kick-started the rally with nine straight points early in the fourth. “We were like, ‘Oh, yeah, we have to go help him up.’ But that play shows how hard Jo works. He never gives up.”
Noah smiled, clearly relishing the opportunity to tweak his teammates.
“Damn, it took forever, right?” he said of the delay.
All’s well that ends well, right?
But make sure to find a replay of Noah’s hustle, which came off Belinelli’s bricked jumper.
As Noah tumbled into cameras and cheerleaders, Belinelli cut to the basket, grabbed the fruit of Noah’s effort and laid it in as Rodney Stuckey fouled him.
“I scored, but the credit goes to Jo,” said Belinelli, who scored his second game-winner in four games.
Coach Tom Thibodeau just shook his head.
“Quite frankly, I don’t know how he got to it,” Thibodeau said. “It was an incredible play.”
The Bulls then watched tying 3-point attempts from Tayshuan Prince and Stuckey rim out as time expired.
“I stayed with the play,” Noah said. “The basketball gods were on our side. It’s not really a great play because if Detroit gets it, it’s a four-on-five fast break the other side. Fortunately, we got it. “
Robinson’s boundless energy can delve into extracurricular emotion, but there’s no denying he jump-started the comeback. Robinson keyed a 12-2 run to open the fourth with nine straight points and a dish for a fast-break dunk from Butler, who tied his career-highs with 18 points and nine rebounds.
Butler, starting again for the injured Luol Deng, played all but 91 seconds and overcame a 1-for-8 start. He also hit a huge 3-pointer – the Bulls missed their first 10 and made just 3 of 14 – for an 82-80 lead before Jason Maxiell tied the game with 29.4 seconds left off a defensive breakdown.
“Jimmy just kept working the game,” Thibodeau said. “He never got down. He kept battling and battling.”
Robinson finished with 11 points.
“That’s Nate. He made a lot of big-time plays for us,” Thibodeau said. “He’s not afraid. I respect that about him.
“The group that started the fourth quarter played with energy, got some stops and got us going.
Noah played 45 minutes with 10 points and 18 rebounds.
“We just kept saying, ‘We’re going to rally together,’” Butler said. “That’s what this team is all about.”