MILWAUKEE – Derrick Rose‘s second season-ending injury was a gut punch to the entire Chicago Bulls’ Nation. Among the players, though, no one seemed to be hit harder or stay doubled-over longer than Joakim Noah, the emotional center of that team in both senses of the term.
“I want to win with Derrick Rose,” Noah had said not long after “Pooh,” his point guard and pal, went down with a medial meniscus tear in his right knee. “…Him going down was just, it was really hard for me, hard for us. But we have to move on, and it’s not easy.”
It wasn’t easy for Noah and the Bulls to snatch back a game from the Bucks Friday night in Milwaukee, but they got it done. And Noah’s performance was the brightest thing about it, a sign that finally, he was back from the darkness of Rose’s sad absence.
The frenetic 28-year-old big man whose game is as intense as his face is expressive played his best game of the season, scoring 21 points with 18 rebounds, five assists, three steals and three blocks to help Chicago to its one-point victory at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
Noah saved his best for last, with 10 points, seven boards, two steals and all three swats in the fourth quarter, a period in which the Bucks shot 6-for-15, the other Bulls shot 6-for-15 and Noah hit five of six.
And when he was done scoring he really got busy: Swarming Milwaukee’s Gary Neal in a two-man trap with Mike Dunleavy and 19.2 seconds left, their team down 90-88 and most definitely not trying to foul. Noah got the tie-up, then won the jump ball over the seven-inches-shorter Neal, setting up Dunleavy’s extra-oomph 3-pointer – off the glass – to win it.
The Bucks inbounded with 5.8 seconds to go and O.J. Mayo raced upcourt, hero ball in mind. Jimmy Butler chased, funneling him just enough so Noah could step in from Mayo’s right to block that final attempt. The late loss, former Buck Dunleavy, the Milwaukee arena inverting cheers and boos with all the Bulls fans in the house – it was too much for some of the rankled Bucks to take afterward.
But it was fine, and high time, for Noah and his coach, Tom Thibodeau.
“We’ve been through a lot,” Noah said. “When you’re playing shorthanded, every game is a battle. It’s never easy. Just got to keep fighting. Stay strong. Tonight the basketball gods were on our side. We feel like they haven’t been. In a while.”
They had been 6-4, with Rose finally returned from his 17-month layoff (left knee ACL surgery), his rust flaking off, and Noah playing his way back after an October lost to a groin strain. Then disaster struck again, relatively speaking anyway, in Portland on Nov. 22.
The Bulls had lost eight of their 10 games since then, till Friday, and even if Noah was getting back physically, he suddenly was reeling emotionally. In the first five games after Rose went down, Noah – an All-Star last season – averaged just 8.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists. Chicago’s offense, obviously, got turned inside out – Luol Deng and Butler got or already were hurt, too, and Noah had a minor knee setback – but so did their spirits.
“I just think we’re all human,” Noah said late in the visitors’ dressing room Friday. “We’ve been through a lot this year. I was talking about it with Dunleavy. It’s crazy how level-headed he is every day. Comes with the same mindset, same mentality. Whether you win or lose, he’s the same. Derrick’s like that.
“I’m the complete opposite. I’m an emotional roller-coaster. You know what I’m saying? I’ve got to try to do a better job of dealing with my highs and my lows and try to be more consistent with the next play, moving on, things like that.”
Noah said there was no epiphany for him, no self-directed pep talk to get him over the hump in dealing with Rose’s loss. “Just got to find a way,” he said. “The games keep coming and people really don’t care about your well-being and how you feel mentally, things like that. So you’ve just got to go out there and get it done.”
Seeing the hated – for him, anyway – Miami Heat on Dec. 5 at United Center seemed to help, the electrodes of that East rival zapping some life back into Noah’s game (17 points, 15 rebounds) in the Bulls’ blowout victory. Otherwise, it’s just been time and Noah adjusting to the stark reality facing them all. They face it again Saturday night, wrapping up their back-to-back at home against Toronto (8 ET, League Pass).
“We’ve been through it for three years, and Jo is an emotional guy,” Thibodeau said. “But we talk about, there’s three parts of getting ready: The mental, the physical and the emotional. What you think and how you think really controls the emotional part of it.
“With his energy right now, it unites our team. It inspires our team. You make tough plays like that [tie-up], that gets the whole team going. So we were all disappointed, y’know, Derrick with the injury. But I think the belief and the challenge, moving forward with this team, we’re all excited about it.”
Players, teammates, friends, they’ve been getting there on different schedules. Noah looked Friday like he finally arrived.