CHICAGO – To say Joakim Noah plays with energy or brings emotion to the court for the Chicago Bulls is to say that the sun plays with light and brings heat to the Earth. See, it’s so much more than that.
Noah radiates that stuff.
If coach Tom Thibodeau is Chicago’s single-mindedness and hard-headedness, if Derrick Rose when healthy is the team’s heart, Noah is its soul. Always quick to rouse and praise the 22,000-plus who fill United Center for each game, the truth is none of them burns for the Bulls the way he does. None of them grabs them by their horns and hoists them on his back the way Noah has done lately, either, putting up big numbers that only scratch the surface of the impact he’s having these days.
Noah crammed the score sheet Saturday night in the Bulls’ thorough beating of Brooklyn with 21 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, four blocks and two steals. He made 10 of his 13 field-goal attempts – and one of those was a halfcourt heave at the third-quarter buzzer that more stats-conscious players always seem to fling an instant too late to avoid dinging their percentages.
In Chicago’s previous game, their spanking of Philadelphia on TNT Thursday, his numbers truly conveyed the spectacular performance he gave: 23 points (8 of 12 from the floor), 21 rebounds and 11 blocked shots. He became only the sixth player since the NBA began tabulating blocks (sorry, Wilt and Russ) to go 20-20-10 in quite that way. The others: Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shawn Bradley, Shaquille O’Neal and Elvin Hayes.
Late in the Sixers game, as Noah shot a pair of free throws in United Center’s west end, the crowd swelled up with a familiar chant of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” In Noah’s case, “D-P-O-Y! D-P-O-Y!” would have been a better fit, for it is the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award for which he’ll get serious consideration.
But the “MVP” stuff was a link of sorts, too, to Rose, the Bulls’ missing All-Star now in the late stages of his rehab from left knee surgery. Not having Rose available for the season’s first four months has led some Chicagoans to keep the team at arm’s length, as if they’re not sure whether to invest emotionally or otherwise in what Bulls management has been selling this season.
Noah, meanwhile, is incapable of such detachment. The vision he has for the Bulls is true. The last two games, it’s as if he slit open a vein and spilled it all over the court for the world to see.
“I don’t have a choice,” Noah said after the Brooklyn game. “This is my job and this is my life. Everything is built around, y’know, this. There’s nothing better right now than winning basketball games. It’s been an up-and-down year. But I really feel like when we’re playing our best, we can really beat a lot of people. So the potential is definitely there.”
Noah has been leading the way, not by rounding up two of everything the way that Biblical version did but by grabbing a whole bunch of many things, from rebounds to blocks to, his latest wrinkle, field goals. He never had run off consecutive 20-point games until now, and his offensive inclinations alone have made a difference: When the 6-foot-11 center takes at least 10 shots, the Bulls are 22-7 this season.
“Most people don’t expect Jo to shoot the ball,” said forward Carlos Boozer, after heaping all sorts of DPOY love on Noah. “But when he’s aggressive and he’s going to the hoop and he’s hitting the jump shot, teams don’t know what to do. Because now you’ve got five guys that can put the ball in the hole.”
Said Noah: “It’s just opportunity. Just diving harder to the basket. My teammates are looking for me. I’m not really doing anything different than I’ve been doing. It’s just … stats, I guess.”
Stats don’t much move Noah’s needle. Winning does. Winning postseason games does. Teammates plugging into his power source, that’s pretty good too.
And pretty standard now, with Noah consciously stepping into the breach of Rose’s absence.
“With Derrick being gone this year, from what I’ve seen, he’s been that leader since Day 1,” said veteran backup Nazr Mohammed. “He’s also a guy who leads by example. You come in and see his energy, his focus before games.”
Sometimes there’s an (over) abundance. Noah was called for a foul just 85 seconds into the game Saturday, then griped his way to a technical from ref Scott Foster. But he stuck around to play 41 minutes, picking up only two more personals.
There was a stormy game against Memphis in January when Thibodeau yanked Noah and kept him out, the player apologizing the next day for some untoward words.
Most nights now, he harnesses it. Lately, he’s channeling it.
“You have to take what you get from guys,” Mohammed said. “If a guy’s emotional, you take that away from him, you affect his game.”
The Bulls are better off with Noah radiating and spilling over to teammates. The talking he does defensively, to clue in forwards and guard on the defensive floor he sees in front of him, is only part of it.
“I think that’s a big aspect of his game also to get real excited when a big play goes down,” forward Jimmy Butler said, “not if he does it but when somebody else does it. That’s part of being a leader, which he’s great at being.
“I feel like everybody feeds off his energy. Everybody feeds off his emotion. You see him yelling, it’s like something in you is like, ‘I’m gonna do it too.’ “
On the good nights, those other Bulls wind up as moons, reflecting what their pony-tailed, free spirit center throws off. As for Noah himself, well, he doesn’t have a choice.