VIDEO: Joakim Noah talks about the Bulls’ win over the Heat
CHICAGO – So spontaneous, so combustible on the basketball court, Joakim Noah was wise not to let anyone light his fuse off it in the postgame dressing room Sunday.
The question was fair if indelicate, coming so soon after the Chicago Bulls’ 95-88 overtime victory against the Miami Heat at United Center: What would Noah say to the people on both sides of the rivalry who might downplay Chicago’s dig-deep triumph, ceding February and March games to the Bulls while reminding them who owns May and June?
“Sounds like a story to me,” Noah said, smiling slightly. “Sounds like an NBA.com story to me.”
Hopefully that moment was captured in 1080p HD video for the suits at headquarters to air and embed endlessly for promotional purposes. Just because Noah didn’t welcome rain on the Bulls’ parade at that particular moment, though, didn’t mean he could stop the clouds from opening.
The fact is, the Bulls have been better in their regular-season matchups against Miami because they play harder, care more and still have much to prove. There’s a satisfaction available to them in beating the Heat – particularly without Derrick Rose and this time without rivalry regular Luol Deng, either – that doesn’t exist for Miami
With Noah as lead cattle prod but others – Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Kirk Hinrich, even newbies like D.J. Augustin and Tony Snell – piling on, the Bulls can yip at the two-time defending champions’ ankles all afternoon and take seven of their last eight at home in the series. They can bang and bother LeBron James into 8-for-23 shooting and 17 points – he already was averaging a sub-par 22.5 points on 45 percent shooting in the eight most recent meetings. They can haul him down, as Butler did, for some baseline MMA in the second quarter.
The Bulls can woof about the “hate” that flows between the teams when they get within 94 feet of each other – hey, the Bulls probably didn’t like it that James, Dwyane Wade and the rest of them had been hanging around Chicago for two days. They can even punk the Heat in five overtime minutes, outscoring them 9-2, outrebounding them by the same numbers and turn nearly every salvaged opportunity into something good (7-0 edge in second-chance points in OT, 27-6 overall).
“We don’t like them,” said Gibson, whose YouTube-able dunk that made it 84-82 with 2:08 left in the fourth quarter took the crowd on a vicarious thrill ride. “You can see how we play. Both teams going at it, Joakim going at it.
“There’s a lot of talking on the floor. A lot of anger. You can tell by the way the fouls are being called and everything. There’s a lot of animosity, there’s a lot of physicality in our teams.”
After which the Heat players can adjust their ties and stride out of the UC, earphones on, shoulders back, until the Bulls do it to them four times in seven tries over two weeks well after Easter.
This isn’t to enable the championship-or-bust mentality so prevalent on Chicago sports talk radio, offered in a dismissive tone by those who pat the Bulls on the heads after games such as this one and patronize their regular-season bravado as “cute.” If the folks who buy that narrative – something left over from the spoiled era of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen – want to act as if Noah’s 20 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists, five blocked shots and relentless pestering of all things Miami didn’t matter Sunday, or barely even happened, they’re on their own.
Just because no one framed the floor with a yellow rope afterward or wheeled out a trophy and a podium to center court didn’t mean it didn’t count.
“Dominant,” Gibson said of Noah’s performance. “He was talking trash to them the whole night. He was in there letting it be known he was going after every rebound, he was going to try to score every time he gets it. He was really tellin’ ‘em everything he was going to do. I could see it in their faces – he was frustratin’ ‘em.”
This was a case of two teams being right – the Bulls in huffing and puffing to seize what they can when they can, and the Heat in knowing that their own itches won’t be scratched until much later. Some close to the Miami operation may be a little antsy, squeezing a little harder in search of the proper pulse – the Heat have dropped three straight, their second such streak this season – but they’ve earned the right through two title runs to treat the first 82 games as airstrip.
Chicago’s challenges have come early and often, by comparison. From Rose’s second setback to Deng’s departure. Since Miami beat them, even up, in five games in the 2011 East finals, the Bulls haven’t been able to come with their crew.
“You look at all the ups and downs we go through,” Gibson said. “We’ve got so many different injuries. We’ve got so many different guys every year. We’ve got new groups of guys but they always seem to buy into what we like to do. … And we just keep flourishing every year. And we’re just always right there toward making that next turn, that next corner, but it’s always injury-prone. Or something else happens.
“Right now, we’re just digging. That’s a rival, whether you want to call it that or not. They’ve got basically what we want, a championship. We want to get that one day, and it feels good to go after a team like that.”
Gibson admitted that losing Rose, playing without Deng, never being able to go hard at the Heat when it counts most has troubled the Bulls. “It’s one thing we think about all the time: What if? What if? What if we always had guys healthy or that same unit we had a couple years before?” the Bulls’ Sixth Man forward said. “But you can’t look at that. You have to look at who’s out there, who’s on the bench. Whoever we got, we’re gonna roll.”
Everything changes in the playoffs. Chicago knows that. James doesn’t go 0-for-0 from the foul line in May or June, most likely. Even in the best of times for the Bulls, he shifts onto Rose defensively and changes every angle. At that time of year, Chris Bosh or Ray Allen hit 3-pointers that break backs, not merely post points.
Noah knows it for sure. He could chuckle, listening to himself proclaim “a lot of hate” for the Heat. But eventually, what he was talking about sounded a lot more like envy. Envy for having an MVP who is more iron and steel than gauze and bandages, envy for the rings, envy for the ultimate.
“Those guys ended our seasons a lot, so I think that’s where the hate comes from,” Noah said. “It’s not like ‘Oh, I hate this guy.’ I want what they have. I want a championship. And I know to get there one day, we’re going to have to get through those guys. That’s the hatred.
“I can’t wait till our whole unit comes back. Cause we know we have another level when that boy [Rose] comes back. We’re hungry, we’re a hungry group. That’s all I want. … One day, I want to party in Chicago and see what that feels like. One day.”
Sunday wasn’t that day, but in the meantime, it would do.