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Joakim Noah delivers on his guarantee as Bulls win Game 7



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Second Round

Game 1: at Heat, 6 Monday

Game 2: at Heat, 6 Wednesday

Game 3: at Bulls, 7 Friday

Remaining schedule TBD


EASTERN Conference

• (2) N.Y. Knicks vs. (3) Indiana

WESTERN Conference

• (1) Oklahoma City vs. (5) Memphis

• (2) San Antonio vs. (6) Golden State

Updated: June 6, 2013 7:23AM

NEW YORK — Even after the Game 6 loss in Chicago on Thursday night, Joakim Noah spent the next 48 hours walking around with a smirk on his face whenever he saw the media. Almost as if he knew something, but wasn’t telling.

In the do-or-die Game 7 at the Barclays Center on Saturday night, it became obvious why Noah was so confident. Too much hustle, too much heart, and too disciplined to lose to a team such as the underachieving Nets.

Just as the Bulls players had said all along.

Even without Luol Deng, who was in the hospital back in Chicago until early Saturday evening, as well as veteran point guard Kirk Hinrich (bruised left calf), the Bulls used a stellar first half to put the Nets in a 17-point hole, and then held on in the second half to win the deciding game 99-93 and earn a free trip to Miami to take on the top-seeded Heat.

All of a sudden that guarantee Noah made two nights earlier didn’t seem so far-fetched.

“I always asked [veteran guard] Rip [Hamilton] about back in the day when they were in Detroit and Rasheed Wallace would guarantee wins. I asked him how they would respond to that,’’ Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. “[Hamilton] said, ‘We just went out and held them down.’ That’s what we did with Joakim. Everyone on this team has love for each other.

“The thing is we have so many injuries, and guys are still holding each other down, ‘Don’t worry about it we got you.’ That was the mind-set we had [Saturday night], and Joakim led the way. He backed up his words and we followed it.’’

Considering Noah was doubtful to even play at the start of the series because of plantar fasciitis in his right foot, he did more than back up his words when it mattered most. He made a big-time statement — scoring 24 points and grabbing 14 rebounds.

And he set the tone early, with five of those rebounds coming in the first quarter and on the offensive side.

“I always say I want a team of leaders,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I want everybody leading. Carlos [Boozer] and Joakim set the tone, Jimmy [Butler] did his job, Nate [Robinson], Marco [Belinelli] was fantastic.

“With Lu going down, we needed people to step up.’’

That the Bulls did, attacking the game like a Game 7. Meanwhile, the Nets played as if it were a Saturday afternoon pickup game in Rucker Park.

“I’m surprised,’’ Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo said. “We dug a big hole. We weren’t as aggressive as they were in that first half.

“That was a heck of a hole to dig out of, especially against a team that competes as hard as they do.’’

The Nets at least made it interesting in the fourth quarter, even cutting the Bulls’ lead to five. But a missed three-pointer by Joe Johnson with 38.9 seconds ended the threat — and made someone’s guarantee stick.

“I wasn’t thinking about that,’’ Noah said of the guarantee. “We had just lost two in a row, and I just wanted our team to be confident going into it.’’

But now play time is over. Brooklyn’s YMCA rec-league offense is in the rearview mirror. It’s time for the Heat.

“Heart can’t beat great teams like the Heat,’’ Gibson said. “We need guys healthy and guys executing at their highest.

“This is different. It’s a different ballgame.

“This is our rivalry. Words cannot express how bad we want to beat them, but we just have to focus.’’

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