PHILADELPHIA – Nobody looks good on crutches. A 6-11 person on crutches looks like a construction crane on a windy day.
The unfortunate sight of Joakim Noah clack-clack-clacking his way down a hotel hallway greeted onlookers Saturday afternoon. He’s about as ready to play basketball as he is to translate ‘‘Beowulf” into sign language. His sprained left ankle was so heavily wrapped, it might as well have been in a cast.
If it’s possible, his face looked sadder than his injury, and that’s saying something, especially if you saw the gruesome way his ankle buckled under him Friday during Game 3 of the Bulls’ first-round playoff series against the 76ers.
Noah’s heart beats for competition. That explains his depression Saturday, as well as his decision to come back into the game despite the puffed-up ankle. He got hurt in the third quarter while going end to end with the ball on a fast break. He stayed in but left a minute later after fouling Philadelphia’s Evan Turner. He tried coming back in the fourth quarter and lasted about two minutes.
Did he make the injury worse by returning? Maybe. Should somebody have stopped him? Coach Tom Thibodeau? Trainer Fred Tedeschi? No. As long as the Bulls were convinced that there was no fracture and as long as Noah thought he could help his team, it was reasonable to put him back in the game.
“He thought he could go,” Thibodeau said. “Sometimes you can get through it, but obviously he was struggling. So he’s out [for Game 4 on Sunday], most likely.”
Noah wanted back in after he got hurt, and his teammates needed him. Playing is what players do. That can’t be overstated in pro sports: Players play. It’s very difficult to tell someone such as Noah that he needs to rest his ankle during a series that feels as if it’s slipping away. Could you have imagined Phil Jackson telling Michael Jordan that it was in everyone’s best interest if he sat out the fourth quarter of a playoff game? Do you know what MJ would have told Jackson to do with everyone’s best interest?
Noah is the energy that helps drive the Bulls, and even if that energy source was shorting out, he wanted to join his teammates and fight as long as he could.
There are people who think someone should’ve stopped Noah from getting taped up and coming back. But this was a pivotal game that was in serious doubt, unlike Game 1, when Thibodeau still had Derrick Rose on the floor with one minutes, 20 seconds left and the Bulls up 12. One torn knee ligament later, the Bulls were without their best player for the rest of the playoffs.
This was different, and Noah knew it. The series was tied 1-1. If he happened to get hurt trying to avert a 2-1 Sixers lead, so be it. This was do or die, and the fact that the Bulls now seem to be dying has nothing to do with Noah’s decision to take another stab at playing. There was nothing to lose, except a game. There was a whole offseason to heal from an ankle sprain.
“We got guys who are playing with a lot of injuries,” Luol Deng said. “Jo tried to give it a go to see where it’s at. And you could see it. Everyone could see it. He was having a hard time.”
We laud people such as Jordan who play hurt. We love the NHL and NFL for being filled with players who will themselves to play through pain. We roll our eyes at athletes who don’t suck it up. But when Noah does try to play and it goes wrong, we look for the lamebrain who made the decision to let him check back in. But what if nobody’s to blame? What if Noah took a shot, and it simply didn’t work out? Why does there have to be a villain?
A trainer clears a player to play and relays that information to a coach. That’s how the process is supposed to work. The process worked fine. The result just didn’t cooperate.
The Bulls look somewhere between stunned and demoralized. It’s not a good place to be, even against a team as unintimidating as the 76ers. But it’s where the Bulls are in a postseason that has gone off the tracks. It started with Rose’s injury and seemed to end Friday with a twist of an ankle and a twist of fate.