NEW YORK – The Nets are bringing postseason basketball to Brooklyn, and Joakim Noah might have to miss the party.
Noah, who grew up in New York, is battling foot problems and might be sidelined when the series opens Saturday, leaving the Bulls without their top option to defend Nets All-Star center Brook Lopez.
“It’s really hard, it’s really hard,” Noah said Friday. “All the work you put in is to play in this situation. This is probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with in my career right now. Going back home and playing in these playoff games means the world to me. Not being able to be ready for that is hard. I’m going to try and do everything I can to help the team.”
Noah’s absence could make a huge difference in what shapes up as a competitive series between the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls won three of the four meetings during the regular season, but only one game was decided by more than four points.
The Nets are healthier and finished strong, winning six of their final seven games to clinch fourth place and open the series at Barclays Center.
“Obviously, that was one of our goals and we’ve accomplished it,” Nets guard Joe Johnson said. “We got home-court advantage for the first round, so we really want to take full advantage of that and give our fans a show.”
In their first season since moving from New Jersey, the Nets are in the playoffs for the first time since 2007. This will be the first postseason game in Brooklyn since Oct. 10, 1956, when the Dodgers lost Game 7 to the Yankees at Ebbets Field.
The Nets are encouraging a “blackout,” asking fans to wear black, one of the team’s colors. Bulls forward Taj Gibson can’t wait to see the scene, having grown up not far from the arena in Fort Greene Projects. He had to sit out his last chance to play at home with a sprained knee but appears recovered now. The Bulls fell 93-89 in their prior trip to Brooklyn.
“We lost in a tough one, but it was just unreal to see all the love, see all the people that really saw me grow up,” Gibson said. “See them working in the [arena], guys that were 50, 60 years old that are still working, and to see them get to see me on an NBA court, it was real emotional, especially when I was leaving. I saw a lot of guys that I had no clue were working there and there were a lot of tears, so I’m looking forward to going back and represent.”
The Bulls still won’t rule out Derrick Rose joining him. He hasn’t played since tearing up his left knee in Game 1 of last season’s playoffs, but has been fully practicing for weeks. Even without the former MVP, the Bulls won 45 games.
“They’re a different team without Derrick Rose, obviously, but this is a blue collar team, a hard-working team and they rely really on their defense,” Johnson said. “So for us offensively, we really have to execute and in the playoffs the game slows down a lot, and considering the fact that we’ve got a great center in Brook and a great point guard, I think it should favor us.”
That point guard is Deron Williams, who wasn’t great in the first half of the season but has returned to an elite level since getting treatment on his ankles around the All-Star break. He averaged 22.9 points in 28 games since the break after managing only 16.7 before it. He scored 30 in four of his seven games in April, including once against the Bulls.
Nazr Mohammed would get the call in Noah’s absence against Lopez, who averaged 22 points against the Bulls.
The Nets realize the Bulls’ defense will make it tough no matter who is in their lineup. Lopez said he expected a “knockdown, drag out” series, and interim coach P.J. Carlesimo cautioned that the Nets would have to protect the ball, saying Brooklyn gave the Bulls 80 points on 73 turnovers.
“I think that it will be physical and it will be a lot of half court and a lot of battles underneath on the boards,” Carlesimo said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a very pretty series.”