An entire year has passed and the Bulls find themselves essentially in the same situation they were 12 months ago: Missing Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah in the first round of the playoffs.
Noah didn't rule himself out for Saturday's Game 1 against the Brooklyn Nets, but he admitted the plantar fasciitis in his right foot is still giving him problems. It is possible he won't play in the series at all.
"I'm in a lot of pain right now," Noah said Friday at the Berto Center. "It's really hard. All the work you put in is to be able to play in this situation. This is probably one of the hardest things I've had to deal with in my career so far. Going back home, playing these playoff games, it means the world to me."
Noah missed a total of 15 games with the foot problem -- three in early February, then 12 late in the season. He came back and played well in Detroit on April 7, had a recurrence and sat out the next four games. He played 14 minutes in each of the final two regular season contests.
"I'm just taking a lot of anti-inflammatories to be able to play," Noah said. "It flares up on me when they come off. In the limited time I had the last two games, it wasn't pretty. It's painful. I'm just trying to find solutions.
"It's tough, but at the end of the day it's not about one player. I'm really proud of this team. I think we put ourselves in a good situation right now. I think we're a very capable group regardless, but I definitely want to be there and help as much as I can."
Coach Tom Thibodeau wouldn't confirm the starting lineup, but using veteran Nazr Mohammed at center appears to be the likely scenario. When the Bulls won in Brooklyn 92-90 on April 4, Mohammed started and played 37 minutes. Nets center Brook Lopez scored 28 points that night, but Mohammed helped preserve the win by blocking a Lopez layup in the waning seconds with the Bulls up by 1.
Another factor with Noah hurting is the health of Taj Gibson. A Brooklyn native, Gibson missed 17 games late in the season with a twice sprained left knee. Like Noah, Gibson played limited minutes in the final two contests.
If healthy, Gibson provides many of the same defensive skills as Noah, such as blocking shots and being quick enough to switch onto different players. In theory, the Bulls could have an effective big man rotation with Gibson, Mohammed and Carlos Boozer.
"I agree in the sense that from a defensive standpoint, they are similar," Thibodeau said of Noah and Gibson. "That's what makes both of those guys so good, their ability to guard virtually everybody on the floor. Ideally, you'd like to have both, but we'll see tomorrow.
"I think Taj's health is pretty good right now. That's encouraging and we'll see where we are with Jo. (Gibson) has been moving great, so hopefully there won't be a restriction on him."
Rose went down with a torn ACL in his left knee at the end of last year's playoff opener against Philadelphia. The Bulls' fortunes went completely down the drain when Noah rolled his ankle in the third quarter of Game 3 and didn't play again in the series, which the Bulls lost in six games.
The Bulls are in a similar spot this time, against a better opponent. But there are some differences. The Bulls have gotten a boost from Jimmy Butler, who will start against the Nets. They are better defensively at point guard with Kirk Hinrich, and have a valuable X-factor off the bench in Nate Robinson, who hit the go-ahead basket with 22 seconds left in Brooklyn on April 4.
"It's going to be a great series," Noah said. "We've proven all year that we're capable of beating anybody. I'm excited for us."
Noah also expressed remorse that he didn't sit out more games to rest his foot during the regular season.
"I got a tear in my foot," he said. "I'm upset at myself because I let this linger for a long time and I have no one to blame but myself. I just wish I was a little bit smarter. I played games in the regular season I probably shouldn't have played. It's going to be tough. But these are the cards I was dealt and I'll just do the best I can to get back as quick as I can."
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