Brooklyn, NY – Down two starters and forced to take the road for a do-and-die game against an opponent with renewed life, the Chicago Bulls appeared to be out of gas.
As it turned out, they had just enough left in the tank.
Sparked by a gutsy 24-point, 14-rebound performance from Joakim Noah, the Bulls overcame the absences of Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich and advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals with a determined 99-93 victory over the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclay Center.
Noah made good on 12-of-17 field goal attempts while playing 41 minutes on an ailing foot, while Marco Belinelli poured in a critical 24 points of his own while stepping in for Deng, who began the day in a Chicago hospital after experiencing complications from a spinal tap. Hinrich, meanwhile, sat out a third straight game due to an injured left calf.
"I don't know what [Noah] did, but he did something, and his foot started feeling better," said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau afterward.
Their efforts, along with a 17-point outing from Carlos Boozer, enabled Chicago to win a Game 7 on the road for the first time in franchise history and earn a date with defending NBA champion Miami in the second round. The Bulls will visit the Heat for Game 1 on Monday.
"We know how good Miami is," Thibodeau remarked. "We're going to have to be at our very best right from the start."
Hosting their first-ever Game 7 playoff matchup, the Nets managed to cut a 17- point halftime deficit down to four in the third quarter, but couldn't overcome their early hole and failed to sustain the momentum built from two straight victories in the series that forced the winner-take-all showdown.
"We didn't want to go out like this," said Nets center Brook Lopez. "We competed, we got better this season and we achieved a lot of our goals, but not all of them."
Deron Williams scored 24 points and Gerald Wallace had 19 for the fourth- seeded Nets. Lopez added 21 points and nine rebounds, but was held to 9-of-20 shooting in the loss.
Joe Johnson had an even tougher time against Chicago's tight defense, managing just six points on a forgettable 2-of-14 night.
Holding a slim 42-38 edge midway through the second quarter, the Bulls broke the game open by putting together a 15-2 run and dominating the final six minutes of the half.
Noah was the driving force behind the surge, netting three of his eight opening-half baskets during the pivotal 13-point swing, which the gritty center capped with a short jumper that staked Chicago to a commanding 57-40 advantage with a minute to go before the intermission.
"He's in unbelievable shape and he can make plays that very few can," said Thibodeau.
The Bulls shot a sizzling 62 percent from the floor during the second quarter, which ended on a thunderous dunk from Boozer off a Nate Robinson feed that sent Chicago into the break up by a commanding 61-44 count.
That margin soon became less comfortable, however, as the Nets turned it up a notch coming out of the locker room with their season on the line.
Williams drained a 3-pointer to key a 7-1 flurry to begin the second half, and Wallace buried triples on back-to-back possessions shortly afterward to trim the lead to 67-60 with 7:37 remaining in the third quarter. Wallace later fed Lopez for an easy dunk that pulled Brooklyn within 69-64, and Williams made it a four-point game after hitting 1-of-2 from the line with 5:29 left in the stanza.
Brooklyn never got any closer, however. The Bulls' Jimmy Butler knocked down a clutch trey after Williams' foul shots, and Robinson drove the lane and scored on Chicago's following series to push the lead to 74-65. The Bulls entered the final quarter holding an 82-75 cushion.
A Boozer layup with 7:08 remaining restored a double-digit differential at 86-76, but the Nets made one last gasp when Williams followed a Lopez tip-in with a 3-pointer that brought the hosts within five with six minutes to play.
Brooklyn still trailed by five entering the final minute, but Johnson and Williams both misfired twice from beyond the arc down the stretch and Belinelli sank four straight free throws to close out the win.
After trading baskets with the Nets for much of the first quarter, Chicago began to create some distance near the period's end. A Taj Gibson bucket just before the buzzer gave the Bulls a 29-25 lead at the conclusion of the frame, igniting a 7-0 burst that Belinelli culminated with a 3-point play just over a minute into the second that extended the margin to nine.
Brooklyn scored the next six points to close the gap, but failed to match the Bulls' execution and intensity over the remainder of the half.
Chicago entered the contest 0-6 all-time in Game 7's as the road team ... The Nets were playing only the second Game 7 in their history, having fallen to Detroit in the 2004 Eastern Conference semis ... Brooklyn's Reggie Evans pulled down 13 rebounds in the loss ... Only eight teams have previously come back from a 3-1 deficit to win an NBA playoff series, with Phoenix the last to accomplish the feat against the Los Angeles Lakers in 2006 ... The Bulls faced the Heat in the 2011 East finals, which Miami won in five games.