CHICAGO – Joakim Noah took a pass Tuesday night. He took a pass Tuesday morning, too, and then again on Tuesday evening an hour or so before tipoff. The news that his teammate, his friend, his brother Luol Deng had been traded hit Noah hard and he wasn’t ready in the first 24 hours after the deal to invite in the outside world. So no media ops for him.
And yet, for 2 hours 15 minutes against the Phoenix Suns at United Center, Noah spoke loud and clear. Chicago’s emotional center scored 14 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and passed for six assists, a performance good enough to pay tribute to Deng, serve notice to the league about these dismantling Bulls and say pretty much whatever else he wanted it to say.
Considering the funk into which Noah might have gone, the Bulls were grateful he went the direction he did in the 92-87 victory.
“Jo is an emotional guy,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “It’s good. I think it’s also what drives him, so you don’t want to take that away from him. He was fine. He is close to Lu. Any time you’ve played with someone for an extended amount of time, and all the trials and tribulations that you go through, there’s a closeness there.
“He responded. I felt by tonight, he got himself together. He was ready to go. His defense was off-the-charts. Playmaking. He got into the flow of the game. He got us going. He’s one of the leaders fo the team, so I think that’s important.”
There was a gloom at the start Tuesday, the reality and the finality of Deng’s departure hitting home. The Bulls had played plenty of games without the two-time All-Star, but those had owed to injuries, temporary absences vs. the permanence of this one.
Piece by piece, what began as nothing less than a championship-focused season has come undone. Derrick Rose was lost for the season, again. Carlos Boozer was out again Tuesday with a sore knee. Now Deng belongs to Cleveland. This team has weathered all sorts of ailments in recent years but this roster-eating bacteria, in the name of cap space and “financial flexibility,” trumps them all.
“It’s tough. Y’know, we lost our best player, and our leading scorer got traded,” guard Kirk Hinrich said.
Seeing Deng’s empty locker, and no one over there stretching in front of it during pregame, drove home the loss, Hinrich said.
“The guys who’ve been around, they’ve probably experienced something like this,” he said. “Obviously it was a big deal because Lu had been here for so long and had such great relationships with everybody on this team, the organization, the community. He’ll be sorely missed, but I mean, what can you do? We had to move forward.”
Some of the Bulls spoke with Deng after the trade overnight, Monday to Tuesday. Jimmy Butler sounded a little embarrassed when sharing Deng’s comment that he would miss Butler. They mostly joked and rarely had talked so seriously. And then came Tuesday’s game.
“It was weird,” Butler said. “We’re so used to hearing Lu say, ‘Bulls on 3!’ and then counting us out. When he’s not there… ”
So who did it instead?
“Me. It was weird,” the third-year swingman said. “But new roles, new leaders. Got to step up.”
The Bulls will hear, and probably already have heard, plenty about building-by-teardown, losing their way into the lottery and hoping – with some of the assets they got in the Cavaliers deal – to start fresh next spring with a couple of guys currently in college and others who’ve yet to attend senior prom.
It’s nothing that plays well in their locker room. There have 49 games left and aren’t inclined to toss away any of them yet.
That might have been part of what was balled up in Noah’s emotions Tuesday, the stuff he didn’t want to let out while letting people in.
“I feel like Jo feels we have a lot to prove still,” Butler said. “People count us out, and Jo’s not someone to go for that – at all. So if people overlook us, Jo’s going to put that game face on and go out there and compete. And produce and play well.”
The acid-reflux Thibodeau must feel each time he thinks of Deng now can be eased by the likes of Noah’s play against the Suns, and the Bulls coming together for a night at the end of a very long day.
By the end, the Bulls’ coach could have been standing in front of a huge U.S. flag as he talked of the challenge and the mettle he’s seen before and needs to see again.
“It’s ‘whatever your circumstances are, make the best of those circumstances,’ ” Thibodeau said. “There’s constant change in this league, whether it’s injuries, trades, free agency, whatever it might be. Then the challenge for the team is to not get distracted with all that other stuff and get locked into what you have to do for your team to be successful.
“That’s what I like about our team. This team has been good a lot of different ways. But they always get up. They always get up.”