- The Washington Times - Monday, April 25, 2005

CHICAGO — The chant came from every end of the arena, a lusty, Thunderstix-banging serenade that needed no translation.




Chicago forward Andres Nocioni stood at the United Center foul line late in the fourth quarter, ball in hand. Having just collected another soaring, screaming rebound, he could seal an opening-round, Game 1 playoff victory over the Washington Wizards with a pair of free throws.

But first, a little love from the sellout crowd.

“It felt good,” Nocioni said. “I need to say ‘thank you’ to everyone.”

Make that the other way around. Posting a career-high 25 points and 18 rebounds, the rookie from Argentina led the Bulls to a 103-94 victory over the Wizards.

Nocioni’s 18 rebounds — 15 defensive — were the most by a rookie in NBA postseason history.

“[Nocioni] was huge out there,” said Chicago coach Scott Skiles. “He’s a very good rebounder anyway, but to get 15 defensive rebounds against that team is exceptional. It’s safe to say that was his best game.”

Indeed. For a turnaround Bulls club that is back in the playoffs for the first time since 1998 and has staked its identity on defense and scrappy play, Nocioni was a tone-setting revelation.

With top Chicago reserve Tyson Chandler contributing 16 foul-plagued minutes, Nocioni helped the smaller Bulls outrebound the Wizards 54-44, a key factor in a hard-fought game that had 18 lead changes and saw the Bulls hold the Wizards to just eight second-chance points.

More impressively, the 6-foot-7 Nocioni single-handedly outrebounding Washington’s starting frontcourt of Brendan Haywood, Jared Jeffries and Antawn Jamison (15 rebounds combined).

“When you play hard basketball, anything can happen,” said Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas. “[Nocioni] plays hard. He controlled the rebounding. He just outhustled us. He [darn] near had a double-double in the first quarter. He did it all for them.”

Did he ever. In the first playoff game of his NBA career, Nocioni hounded Washington counterpart Jamison into a 6-for-15 shooting night and frustrated the Wizards with his bounding, physical play — the same forearm-in-the-gut style that earned him a one-game suspension for throwing an elbow at Detroit’s Tayshaun Prince earlier this month.

“He was very aggressive,” Jordan said. “He took it to us.”

With 2:20 left in the fourth quarter and Chicago clinging to a 96-94 lead, Nocioni sank a long 3-pointer from the corner, sending the crowd into delirium and giving the Bulls a lead they did not relinquish.

“He made timely plays, too,” Skiles said. “He took charges, went to the hole, made that big 3. He was outstanding.”

Nocioni has been outstanding before: a native of Sante Fe, Argentina, the 25-year-old forward was a member of Argentina’s gold medal-winning squad at the Athens Olympics and earned Spanish ACB League MVP honors while playing for Tau Ceramica last season.

In his first career NBA game, Nocioni notched a double-double. Still, even he didn’t expect a Dennis Rodman-esque performance, not after grabbing more than 10 rebounds in just three regular-season games.

After the game, Nocioni was asked if he had ever rebounded so effectively.

“In Europe, yes,” Nocioni said. “Here, no. This is my first time.”

On his final rebound of the evening — fittingly, a defensive carom — Nocioni splayed his legs in midair, cupping the ball with one hand, slapping it with the other. He let out an impassioned scream — a habit of his, at least according to teammates.

“Everybody makes [fun of] how I scream all the time,” Nocioni said with a smile. “Offensive rebound, defensive rebound, anything.”

After the game, Nocioni sat on a stool in the cramped Chicago locker room, clad in a towel and surrounded by a scrum of reporters measuring four-deep. An unlikely hero for an unlikely team, he politely begged off additional questions.

“It’s just one game,” he said. “I need to think about the next game.”

Nocioni flashed a weary smile. Hadn’t the crowd already said enough?

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