DEERFIELD, Ill. (AP) -Andres Nocioni wasn't backing down because, well, that's just not his style.
Chicago took three of four from the Detroit Pistons during the regular season, and the Bulls' forward predicted this week his team would win this second-round series in seven games. OK, so this wasn't quite on the level of Joe Namath's Super Bowl guarantee.
Still, it was enough to tweak the opponent - something Nocioni tends to do, whether he means it or not.
``They've got to go out there and do it,'' Detroit's Rasheed Wallace said Thursday. ``If they do it, then hat's off. It's going to be a fight, I'll tell you that.''
And Nocioni wasn't backing away.
``Of course, why not (predict a win)?'' Nocioni said with an innocence that belies a white-hot intensity. ``I think we have great, talented guys. I think we play great 'D.' I have a lot of confidence, man. We need to play, that's it.''
By the time they meet the Pistons on Saturday, nearly a week will have passed since the Bulls finished off their first-round sweep of defending champion Miami, and Nocioni is antsy. No surprise, considering how hyperactive he is.
That energy, that frenzied style, endears him to teammates and Bulls fans while rankling opponents. It has led to a few heated exchanges, including one with Miami's Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem near the end of the 2004-05 regular season. Nocioni also served a one-game suspension for elbowing New Jersey's Mikki Moore in January.
``I don't think Noc will hurt someone,'' Bulls forward Luol Deng said. ``That's not on his mind.''
This is: Giving the Bulls the boost they need, often in key spots.
Nocioni provided it in the first round, even though he missed 28 of 29 games late in the regular season because of plantar fasciitis in the right foot and strained his right quadriceps attempting a reverse layup in Game 3.
The cure for the foot problem is rest, but Nocioni said it feels fine when he plays, that the problem comes when he cools down. And he made one thing clear: He plans to play in Game 1.
Despite the problems, Nocioni disrupted Miami and inspired deafening ``No-ci-oni!'' chants during the Bulls' two home games.
He scored 17 points in Game 1 of the first-round series against Miami and converted a critical three-point play on which Shaquille O'Neal fouled out. Afterward, O'Neal claimed referee Eddie F. Rush ``derailed'' him and accused the Bulls of flopping.
Nocioni whipped the crowd into another frenzy in the final 11.6 seconds of the first quarter in Game 2 against the Heat, when he converted a four-point play and hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
And he came up with 11 points in Game 4 despite his leg troubles.
At 6-foot-9, Nocioni poses matchup problems for opponents because he can guard bigger players and hit the outside shot, but his ability to get under opponents' skin sometimes overshadows that.
``Noc is very skilled,'' Deng said. ``The way he does it, kind of makes an opponent mad. He bullies his way in a little bit, making some noise, screaming. If you're a fan, you're going to love it. If you're on the opposite side, you're going to hate it.''
He called Nocioni ``one of the funniest guys'' on the team, and they have become close since they the league three years ago. Still, he can see why opponents might not like Nocioni.
Deng said he may occasionally push someone - once. Nocioni will keep doing it, though, knowing it bothers the other player.
``He doesn't stop,'' Deng said.
His first impression of Nocioni when they were rookies was of someone with ``really a lot of energy, kind of a physical player, out of control.'' Deng hated going against him in practice, but he realizes he became a better player because of it.
Deng said the Bulls tell Nocioni to slow down ``all the time.''
Nocioni's response?
Deng shook his head and said, ``Exactly what I just did.''
It's against Nocioni's nature to ease up, back away.
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