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.”
But that wasn’t where this particular NBA.com story was headed.
The Bulls deserved the day. They deserved to enjoy their victory over the NBA’s two-time defending champions for what it was: an irrepressible display of passion and resourcefulness (27 second-chance points to Miami’s six), embodied by Noah, with enough context competing on both sides to cancel itself out.
Chicago has gotten the best of Miami in the regular season, by and large, because it plays harder, cares more and still has things to prove that the Heat do not. There is a satisfaction available to them in these games – particularly without Derrick Rose and now absent rivalry regular Luol Deng, too – that isn’t there for Miami.
What the Heat have is the luxury of playing it both ways: Competing hard to win a game such as Sunday’s but then, when they don’t, shrugging and striding out of the UC daring the Bulls to do it to them four times in seven tries over two weeks sometime after Easter. That makes it a no-lose for Miami, which has earned the right to treat the regular season like one really long runway, and something of a no-win for Chicago.
But then you remember the setbacks the Bulls have weathered, losing Rose to a second knee injury three weeks into the season and trading Deng as a pre-emptive “no mas” move in January, and how some wanted them to race toward the NBA’s bottom, chasing down Philadelphia and Milwaukee for prime Draft position. How they had neither man last spring, either – Rose out, Deng hospitalized – when they lost four in a row to the Heat after taking the opener in their East conference semifinals series. How you have to go back to the East finals in 2011 for the Bulls to come at Miami with their preferred crew.
“You look at all the ups and downs we go through,” Chicago forward Taj 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.
“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.”
It took 53 minutes before the Bulls could roll past Miami on Sunday. Noah led, but others – Gibson, Jimmy Butler, Kirk Hinrich, even newbies like D.J. Augustin and Tony Snell – piled on. Chicago nipped at the Heat’s ankles, banged and bothered LeBron James into 8-for-23 shooting for 17 points and even hauled him down, Butler trading some baseline MMA moves with James in the second quarter.
They woofed about the “hate” that bubbles up between these teams whenever they get within 94 feet of each other – hey, the Bulls probably didn’t like it that James, Dwyane Wade and the rest had been hanging around Chicago for two days. And they punked Miami in the five overtime minutes, outscoring them 9-2, outrebounding them by the same numbers and turning nearly every salvaged opportunity into something good.
“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.”
Everything changes in the playoffs, Chicago knows. James doesn’t play 45 minutes without shooting a free throw in May or June, most likely. Or he switches onto Rose defensively and changes every angle for the point guard. At that time of year, Chris Bosh or Ray Allen hit 3-pointers that break backs, not merely post points.
But just because Noah’s 20 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists, five blocks and nonstop pestering of all things Miami came in March doesn’t mean it didn’t matter or barely even happened.
“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. Even Noah knows that. He could chuckle Sunday as he heard himself proclaim “a lot of hate” for Miami, though what he was talking about sounded more like envy. Envy for having an MVP who is more grit and gristle than gauze and bandages. Envy for the rings. Envy for how Miami ends its (and everybody else’s) seasons.
“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.