Posts Tagged ‘Tom Thibodeau’

Morning Shootaround — March 1


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron’s mask dilemma | Knicks eyeing Jackson as Woodson’s replacement? | OKC and Butler a perfect fit | Bulls confidence soaring during current run | Colangelo: “I tried to tank”

No. 1: LeBron’s black mask days appear to be over after just one game – Well, it was fun while it lasted, LeBron James in that black mask to protect his broken nose. Our Bleacher Report brother Ethan Skolnick broke the news that the NBA prefers LeBron wear the clear mask and no the black carbon-fiber shield he wore during Thursday night’s win over the Knicks. And according to Skolnick, this isn’t just the league being heavy handed. It’s more about them sticking to the precedent that’s already been established in regards to goggles and facial ware being clear so there is no advantage for the player who is forced to play with goggles or a mask (go figure):

In an email, Skolnick explained why the league prefers a clear mask as opposed to a black one: “The reason the league prefers the ‘clear’ is so that opponents can see a player’s eyes. They have set rules about goggles, which came into play with (Dwyane) Wade in New York in 2011.”

Defenders already have enough trouble stopping James. If they’re unable to read his eyes as a means of guessing where he plans to attack, guarding him would become even more impossible.

Still, this change will be a bummer for the Internet world. Twitter exploded with various comparisons, GIFs and Photoshop creations as King James donned the Zorro-esque mask in a 108-82 win against the New York Knicks Thursday night.

LeBron isn’t going to let the black mask go away without a bit of a fight. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reports that an appeal has been filed and that LeBron, while prepared to comply with the league’s request, would like to continue wearing the black mask. It’s complicated, of course, as is anything this seemingly trivial:

“It is our understanding LeBron used the black mask because a clear one he was comfortable with wasn’t ready,” NBA spokesman Tim Frank said.

James appealed the decision and is still trying to get clearance to wear the black mask because he likes the lightness and fit of it, a source said. He also said he liked the style and how it matched the Heat’s black throwback uniforms. It gave him no issues when he put up 31 points on 13-of-19 shooting in the Heat’s 108-82 win against the Knicks.

But James is preparing to use a clear mask Saturday, though he still may find a way to personalize it.

The black mask was a huge hit among fans, and James and several teammates posted pictures with it on social media. On Friday, the Heat started selling T-shirts with a masked James on them.

“Only LeBron can make breaking your nose look cool,” Heat forward Shane Battier said.

***

No. 2: Knicks eyeing Mark Jackson as Mike Woodson’s eventual replacement? – The Knicks are in the midst of an absolutely dreadful stretch right now, one that has brought into question the futures of almost all involved but especially coach Mike Woodson and resident superstar Carmelo Anthony. Anthony will make his own decisions about his future, this summer in free agency. Woodson, however, will see his fate decided by the Knicks’ big bosses. And if the fans get their wish, a familiar face would be the choice to replace Woodson. New York native and former Knicks point guard Mark Jackson, who happens to have a job coaching the Golden State Warriors right now, is the dream pick, according to Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News:

The big meeting took place right out on the Garden floor, for all to see.

Knicks president and GM Steve Mills and his top lieutenant, Allan Houston, were double-teaming Mark Jackson a little more than an hour before the Knicks pulled a no-show and were routed by Jackson’s Warriors, 126-103, on Friday night.

Go ahead Knicks fans, dream a little.

We can tell you on good authority, no job offer was made. We know this because it was just small talk, chit-chat among old friends.

But it was fairly obvious to everyone in the place that the Knicks have a crush on their old playmaker.

Early in the game, they paid tribute to Jackson on the big scoreboard with a nice video of his career, showing some of his highlights during his two-part career in New York.

Then came the ultimate tribute, at the end of the video, when the PA announcer introduced Jackson, saying, “Once a Knick, always a Knick.”

When they say that about you at the Garden, you know you’re family.

Even MSG Network seemed to be doing its best to give Jackson an inordinate amount of air time in its postgame coverage.

It sure does seem as if the Knicks have their eyes on Mark Jackson, out of Bishop Loughlin and St. John’s.

It’s not as if Jackson hadn’t been back at the Garden before this night. So their show of affection seemed a tad excessive.

But maybe the Garden was just sending signals about who it wants to coach down the line. Jackson got his win, which wasn’t very hard to do. His meal ticket, Stephen Curry, notched his triple-double and there were still two minutes left in the third quarter. His team rebounded nicely off a 20-point loss two nights earlier in Chicago.

Mike Woodson is walking around with a look on his face as if he knows the end is near. Well, after these final 23 games.

“I’m not aware of it, I’m coaching my basketball team, so I haven’t kept up,” Jackson said beforehand about his old team.

Of course he was playing dumb.

He called the Knicks “a dangerous team.”


VIDEO: Masked LeBron was great against the Knicks but will he make another appearance in black?

***

No. 3: Butler a good fit for Thunder on and off the court – The Thunder ended that skid with Russell Westbrook back in the lineup, courtesy of Kevin Durant‘s 30-point second half in a win over Memphis Friday night. But they’re focused on regaining their winning ways and more right now. Caron Butler is set to join the Thunder’s title quest now that his buyout in Milwaukee is complete and once he’s cleared waivers. As Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman makes clear, Butler is an excellent fit for the Thunder’s culture, on and off the court, and should be play an integral role in whatever they do going forward this season:

You’ve probably read or heard about all that he brings: toughness and experience, professionalism and character, defense and 3-point shooting.

But what few among us know is why Butler, free to sign with any team after being bought out by Milwaukee on Thursday, chose to come to Oklahoma City.

For now, all we can do is assume it’s because the Thunder gives him a chance to win his second championship. But there’s got to be something more.

That alone is something other franchises, like Miami, Indiana, San Antonio, Houston and the Los Angeles Clippers, also could offer. And the Thunder, for myriad reasons, couldn’t offer the most money or the most minutes or the biggest and best metropolis.

So what’s bringing Butler to OKC?

One reason could be the Thunder’s culture closely matches Butler’s mentality.

Butler would become only the second player the Thunder has signed after another team agreed to a buyout. Derek Fisher in the 2011-12 season became the first.

Both carried with them well-established reputations for being upstanding citizens, community-minded individuals and championship-driven players. Their attraction to Oklahoma City could say as much about the Thunder as it does about them.

It could say the Thunder is now a prime destination for players who want to win.

***

No. 4: Bulls confidence soaring after latest show of toughness – The Chicago Bulls take pride in their toughness. Coach Tom Thibodeau has instilled that in them from the start. And with leaders like Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich around to spread the message, it’s no wonder the Bulls are thriving during what would be tumultuous times anywhere else. They know that no matter the circumstance, no matter who is or is not in uniform, they will compete to the very end. They showed off that intestinal fortitude in an eye-opening comeback win over the Dallas Mavericks in Dallas Friday night. It was the Bulls’ eighth win in 10 tries. They are cut from a completely different cloth than any other team in the league in that regard, notes Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com:

The difference between the Bulls and many other teams in the league is that they rarely lose focus on what they are trying to accomplish. They believe in themselves and they believe in coach Tom Thibodeau’s system. They believe, no matter how good their opponent might be, that they can win each night. That’s why, when they got into a 16-point hole in Friday’s first half and had to knock down shots late in the game, their demeanor never changed. They never stopped believing that tough defense and big shots would be the elixir against a Mavericks team playing some of its best basketball of the season.

“I just think we didn’t panic,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said, “I think guys understood what we have to do. … We’re just focused right now. Our defense is really clicking. Our offense is really clicking. Guys are really taking big-time shots, we’re never panicking late, we’ve been in this situation. Our poise is just through the roof right now and we’re really in a rhythm.”

That’s the key for Thibodeau’s team as it streaks into March. The rhythm Gibson talked about was missing before the turn of the new year. The same Mavericks team came into the United Center in late December and beat the Bulls by 22 points. Gibson and his teammates are finding ways to adjust on the fly, something that was apparent in the defining fourth quarter, when the Bulls tightened up their defense and held the Mavericks to only six makes from the field in 25 attempts.

“We’re tough whenever we’re playing defense,” Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler said. “Rotating, getting into the ball. I think that’s where the basketball starts for us. We let our defense dictate our offense.”

The Bulls are only going to go as far as their defense takes them this season. That’s why Friday’s comeback win meant a little more to them. They realized yet again that they have the ability to shut down good teams on the road — a trait that will serve them well in the playoffs. They realized that they could overcome their surroundings, as Mavericks owner Mark Cuban barked at officials under the basket and Dallas assistant coaches Mike Shedd and Mike Weinar screamed out most of the Bulls’ sets whenever Thibodeau made a call. It’s games like this, victories like this, that remind the Bulls just how important the little things are to winning.

“I feel like when people call you resilient that’s a compliment,” Noah said. “But we just got to stay hungry, stay hungry, keep this mindset, we got punched in the face early in the game, we stuck with it and we kept fighting. I think that’s what this team represents. We got one of our best wins of the year today.”

***

No. 5: Ex-Raptors boss Colangelo: “I tried to tank” – The Colangelos, the first family of basketball to many, has upheld the NBA shield for decades. But Bryan Colangelo, the former boss of both of the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors, admitted committing the cardinal sin for a franchise when admitted to trying to tank with the Raptors a couple of years ago. Colangelo came clean on a panel discussion at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. Colangelo said he did so during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, a move he said was a basic necessity for the Raptors, given their predicament at that time. USA Today Sports’ Sam Amick delivers the details:

As part of a Basketball Analytics panel in which a current proposal was discussed in which the league’s draft lottery system would be replaced by a structure in which the incentive for losing would be eliminated, Colangelo shared the sort of story that the NBA community is well aware is somewhat commonplace but that executives typically keep to themselves.

“I like (the proposal) because there’s no assurances (of getting a good pick) when you do tank,” Colangelo said. “Admittedly, I will say, I tried to tank a couple years ago.

“And I didn’t ‘come out and say, ‘Coach (Dwane Casey), you’ve got to lose games.’ I never said that. I wanted to have him establish a winning tradition and a culture and all of that, but I wanted to do it in the framework of playing and developing young players, and with that comes losing. There’s just no way to avoid that, but I never once said, ‘You’ve got to lose this game.’ “

Colangelo reflected on the ripple effect of that season, as the Raptors finished 23-43 and ultimately drafted Terrence Ross out of the University of Washington with the eighth pick. Because Toronto had finished with the same record as the Golden State Warriors, they had a coin flip to determine which team picked first.

Less than a year later, Colangelo was, in essence, replaced by former Denver Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri. Colangelo stepped down as team president three months later.

“Just one less loss (that season) would have put us in a coin toss for (the Portland Trail Blazers’) Damian Lillard potentially (he was taken sixth), and that was a need that we had on our team that year, a point guard need,” Colangelo said. “So it would have kind of taken us on a whole different route in this rebuilding process, and of course if we had lost a lot more games we would have had better odds to get (the New Orleans Pelicans’) Anthony Davis, the big prize that year. We’re looking at it, and it didn’t work out.

“There’s no assurances (in the lottery). I do like the certainty of the (proposed) process. I think there are some merits to obviously take it to the next extent, except I wish we could start it sooner because there really is some ugly basketball being played.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Friday night was a bonanza for mercurial performances around the league. Not only did Kyrie Irving go off for his first triple double … but Goran Dragic scored a career-high 40 points in the Suns’ win over the Pelicans … and Jordan Farmar made Los Angeles Lakers fans forget their woes, at least for a moment, with a career-high 30 points of his own in a win over the Sacramento Kings … Rachel Nichols sat down with Nets center Jason Collins for an in-depth interview about the veteran big man’s journey back to the NBA … and finally, the “Fire Woodson” chants and boos are getting louder and louder at the Garden

ICYMI of The Night: Steph Curry, needed just three quarters to record a triple double and help the Warriors dump the Knicks at Madison Square Garden 


VIDEO: Steph Curry loves working at Madison Square Garden

Driving Oscar To The Hoop


VIDEO: The Starters pick movie roles for some of the NBA’s biggest stars

It was just last week when LeBron James had to disappoint fans in the basketball and cartoon worlds by shooting down rumors that he was getting ready to star in “Space Jam 2″.

Oh, what heartbreak not to have LeBron and SpongeBob SquarePants go toon-on-toon against Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny to settle the G.O.A.T. debate once and th-th-th-at’s all, folks!

But with the Oscars ready to tip off Sunday night, it occurs to us that there were plenty of movies released in the past year that could use a slam dunking NBA touch:

Monuments Men — Who needs a fourth stone head to construct a Mt. Rushmore in Miami when more than enough in their own granite-hard trio to chase a third consecutive NBA title? Everybody from Indiana to OKC and points all around are trying to steal away with the priceless Larry O’Brien Trophy, but LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are counting not one, not two, not …


VIDEO: LeBron James makes his famous ‘Mt. Rushmore’ comments to Steve Smith

Frozen — After winning the MVP award in 2011, Derrick Rose has the next two seasons of a budding superstar career put on ice with major injuries to both knees. A hopeful city of Chicago that was ready to usher in the post-Jordan championship era has turned cold.

American Hustle — When Rose went down on Nov. 22 and was once again lost for the season, everyone expected his teammates to roll over. They even traded away a big offensive gun in Luol Deng, but producer Tom Thibodeau has done a combover and is pulling off the greatest con since ABSCAM with the Bulls sitting at No. 4 in the East with home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference.

The Lego Movie — First-year general manager Sam Hinkie arrives on the job in Philly and promptly locks himself in his room, where he spends all hours of the day and night trying to fit together dozens of little pieces into something that will one day look like a competitive basketball team. Or a rocketship.

Almost Human — He’s almost tall enough to bump his head on the backboard, but has 3- or even 4-point range from practically anyplace on the court. Not since the menacing Gort touched down in “The Day The Earth Stood Still” has anyone appeared as unstoppable as box-office smash Kevin Durant.


VIDEO: Kevin Durant has simply been on fire in February

Vampire Academy — The front office in Brooklyn hatches a plan for world domination by forming an army around the walking undead creatures of 36-year-old Paul Pierce, 36-year-old Jason Terry and 37-year-old Kevin Garnett. But rather than biting opponents on the neck, they were mostly toothless, ineffective and scared nobody.

Paranormal Activity — It was one to thing leap over a Kia at All-Star weekend and turn every game into a slam dunking highlight reel. But Blake Griffin eventually tired of being typecast and under new director Doc Rivers has worked on his shot, expanded his repertoire and now does unearthly, inexplicable things that nobody thought possible just a couple of years ago.

Dallas Buyers Club — For all the money, all the bombast and all the talk about positioning the Mavericks to be big players in the free-agent market and getting Dirk Nowitzki a superstar playmate after dismantling his 2011 championship, Mavs owner Mark Cuban struck out on Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. Right now, he’s where he used to be: stuck in the sale aisle at Sam’s Club.

Gravity — He’s 35 years old, has played 17 full NBA seasons, has more miles on his odometer than a hand-me-down pickup truck and is trying to come back from a torn Achilles tendon and a fractured knee. Yet, 16-time All-Star Kobe Bryant simply won’t acknowledge what Isaac Newton learned sitting under the apple tree — what goes up, must come down.


VIDEO: Kobe Bryant talks during the All-Star Game about being a spectator this season

Philomena — When the losingest, ugliest, most painful season in modern team history finally and mercifully limps to the end, executive VP of player personnel Jim Buss fires Mike D’Antoni and at a star-studded Hollywood news conference. Buss then introduces a 68-year-old Irish widow with a vaguely reminiscent limp, wearing a gray wig and with a familiar twinkle in “her” eye and says Phil-omena is back to put everything right with the Lakers.

I, Frankenstein — Team president Larry Bird wasn’t happy enough with having the best record and the most fearsome, downright scary defense in the league that was sewn together with Paul George, Roy Hibbert, David West and Lance Stephenson. He performs more surgery in his lab by adding Evan Turner to bolster his Pacers bench and now thinks he’s ready to take down that other monster: the Miami Heat.

The Nut Job — Everybody in the world thought Dwight Howard was out of his mind for the way he slow-walked his ugly departure from Orlando and then bolted out the door of the royal Lakers, leaving $30 million on the table. But who’s crazy now as Howard rides tandem with James Harden and has the Rockets looking like one tough nut to crack in the playoffs?

Despicable Me — As if he hadn’t done enough already to polish his reputation as someone who cannot be trusted as the cornerstone of a franchise and leader to take the Kings back to the playoffs, DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t even bother to get one of his minions to slug Patrick Beverley in the stomach and just does it himself, earning a fine and one-game suspension.

Endless Love — Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager team up for a buddy movie where they criss-cross the country in an old VW bus, stopping at thrift shops to buy old horse blankets and bedsheets while exchanging long hopeful questions and grumpy one-word answers.


VIDEO: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has some good-natured fun with Craig Sager

The Wolf Of Wall Street — He bats his eyes at the Lakers. He flirts with the Bulls. He head fakes in the direction of any other would-be suitor that will glance his direction and then, Carmelo Anthony decides he’s got the world on a string living the high life … and hungrily signs on for a repeat performance of his lone wolf act. Then, the reviewers in the New York media give him a standing ovation and immediately declare the Knicks contenders.

Pompeii — After Isiah Thomas and Jerome James and Amar’e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton and Andrea Bargnani, a massive volcanic eruption like the one that came from Vesuvius in 79 A.D. hits Madison Square Garden. The past is finally buried under a blanket of lava, giving away at last to a new beginning.

Yoked To Amnesty, Boozer Grinds On


VIDEO: Steve Aschburner discusses the state of the Bulls

CHICAGO – It’s been said before (maybe in this very space) that Carlos Boozer is the prototypical modern professional athlete, his Under Armour matched by a top coat that is equal parts Teflon, Kevlar and calluses.

The Chicago Bulls power forward has been a target for critics, be they ticket buyers, microphone wielders or keyboard jockeys, for most of his 12 NBA seasons and particularly so since the summer of 2010, when he was the Bulls’ consolation get in that offseason’s free-agent shopathon. If it wasn’t for a game that barked louder than it often bit (“Hold dat!”), it was for all those muscles that seemed more show than go.

For the past couple of seasons at least, Boozer has been the target of nearly non-stop speculation over Chicago’s likelihood of shedding him via the amnesty clause in the league’s latest collective bargaining agreement. Signed to a five-year, $75 million deal as a piece to an imagined Bulls championship, he and his salary have seen longer as an impediment to that. A segment of fans and media has grown impatient as each season passes, Boozer still in residence, emoting, slapping at the ball and sitting down the stretch of close games.

Look, we come here to assess Boozer, not to praise him. He does what he does. He is what he is and, for that matter, always has been. And at some point, you have to admire the tenacity and respect the unflappability.

“It’s easy [to tune out critics],” the veteran forward said Wednesday after putting up 15 points and 13 rebounds in a surprisingly uncompetitive 103-83 victory over Golden State at United Center. “That’s why I’ve been in the league so long. Twelve years, and just focus on what’s in front of you.”

Boozer is having another Boozer season, only slightly less so. His shooting percentage is at a career-low 45.5 percent and, though he’s making free throws more often than ever (77.6 percent), he’s taking a near-low of 3.0 per game. He has dipped to a just-average PER (15.0), using basketball-reference.com stats, compared to 20.1 for his first 11 seasons and 19.7 as recently as 2011-12.

And yet, Boozer almost is a mini-Timmy, much like the Spurs’ Hall of Fame-bound Tim Duncan, in his unfailing consistency for more than a decade. Compare his numbers per 36 minutes this season at age 32 with those he posted in his third year, 2004-05 in Utah at age 23, and across his career:

  • 2013-14: 18.0 points, 10.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks, 7.6 FG, 16.6 FGA
  • 2004-05: 18.4 points,  9.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 7.3 FG, 14.0 FGA
  • Career: 18.8 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks, 7.8 FG, 14.9 FGA

This season, Boozer fussed a little over being yanked down the stretch of close games, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau tending – as he had been for three seasons – to trust backup Taj Gibson‘s defense. He has missed six games to injury, compared to three in all of 2012-13. His accuracy is down, as noted earlier. His lift at the rim is almost non-existent many nights. And his on-court/off-court net impact is way off (minus-4.8) from his career mark (minus-0.7).

Still, Chicago is 12-6 when Boozer posts a double-double. A scout at Wednesday’s game said: “I like his game more than a lot these [other scouts]. He’s not a good individual defender but he’s all right as a team defender.” And through two tumultuous seasons of Derrick Rose injuries and the Luol Deng trade last month, Boozer’s constancy has been almost reassuring.

“He’s playing well. And we need it,” Thibodeau said Wednesday. “The thing is, I look at he, Joakim [Noah] and Taj as three starters. I look at their production at the end of every night, it’s very, very good. I think we’re getting great play up front, and that’s been a huge key for our team. The rebounding is huge for us. Then the fact that we can throw the ball in to Carlos on one side, to Taj on the other, that’s another weapon that we can go to.”

Said Boozer: “We bring the juice, man, we bring the juice to this team. It’s very … loud (laughs), very passionate and we try to hold the front down inside.”

The question remains open: Will the Bulls amnesty Boozer after this season? Conventional wisdom suggests that any time a team can clear $16.8 million off its salary cap and luxury-tax liability with minimal downside, it should. But paying Boozer all that money not to play or, worse, to post his 14 points and nine rebounds for some rival at a bargain, double-dipping rate might not set well with Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls’ cost-conscious chairman.

It could, in fact, feel like a luxury tax of its own, especially if Chicago doesn’t try to dredge out serious cap space for this summer’s class of free agents, focusing instead on 2014-15 improvement from Rose’s return, the luring of stashed Euro forward Nikola Mirotic and the draft.

Meanwhile, whether for the next two months of the regular season and however long the Bulls last in the playoffs or for 15 months of the same, Boozer goes blithely along. His curtain publicly seems as impervious as the great and powerful Oz’s, though teammates have peeked behind it.

“I’m proud of ‘Los,” Noah said, “because I know ‘Los is going through a lot. For him to bring the intensity he brings every night, with everything that’s said about him and the future, even playing time – I mean, there are a lot of issues that are probably frustrating for him. But for him to come out here, practice the way he practices, come ready to play every day, it shows what kind of guy he is and I really respect that.”

Said Gibson: ” As a whole, we all help him out. We all ride with him. We really don’t think about what the outside world says about us, ’cause we understand some people are going to go against us no matter what. … Thibs just tells him, ‘Don’t worry about that stuff. Go out there, play basketball and have fun.’ He’s having fun. He’s laughing all the time. In the back of your mind, you want to think about [criticism] but as a team, we try to take his mind off that.”

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 12


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 11

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Motivated LeBron backs up Rushmore talk | Latest loss strikes a nerve with Lakers | Bennett’s big night lifts Cavs | No comeback for Rose, Noah problem for Bulls

No. 1: Fired up LeBron fuels Mount Rushmore talk himself – Agree or disagree all you want with LeBron James and his assertion that he’ll be on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore when his career ends, you have to like what all of the chatter is doing for his game and the Heat’s season. The Heat might not be on their way to another 27-game win streak, but James has found the motivation needed to overcome the rough patches of this season. LeBron is feeling his words right about now, Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com writes, he’s walking the walk and backing up all of his own talk:

James’ seasonal slogan might just as well be what he said Tuesday, “I’m feeling good right now.”

He has the occasional frustration with a wayward loss, such as over the past weekend in Utah when he played a dud game. He’ll get a little irked when it’s mentioned that Kevin Durant may have closed the gap on him for best player on the planet status. But, generally, James has been skipping on air since he stood on top of the podium after Game 7 in Miami last June holding both gold trophies with that “what can you say now” grin across his face.

The mindset will eventually be challenged but not for awhile. Until then, James will be feeling quite good about himself.

That was at the root of why he was willing to declare in a recent interview with NBA TV that, “I’m going to be one of the top four that’s ever played this game, for sure. And if they don’t want me to have one of those top four spots, they’d better find another spot on that mountain. Somebody’s gotta get bumped.”

When James listed what he felt was the current NBA Mount Rushmore, he named Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson. It is hard to decide which would create more conversation, James’ statement or his choices of the peer group.

Feeling so good about himself and put at ease by interviewer Steve Smith, James continued by claiming that he’d been cheated in the NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting the past two years.

“To be honest, I feel I’ve been snubbed two years in a row [on the award], and I’m serious,” James said. “And that’s one selfish thing about me … I feel like I should have won it.”

Yes, that is James insisting that he’s not getting enough credit for something. He’s just letting it all go. In the golden era of his career, he clearly figures, why shouldn’t he? He fears no reprisal and, at least now, isn’t too worried about any opponent.

“We’ll play anybody, it doesn’t matter,” James said as he was basking in the win. “It doesn’t matter who it is. We’re not running from anyone.”



VIDEO: LeBron James talks Mount Rushmore with Steve Smith

***

No. 2: Latest loss strikes a nerve with Lakers – Steve Nash exiting a second straight game with a nerve issue is problem enough for the Los Angeles Lakers. But dropping yet another game on their home floor is perhaps even more troubling for the Lakers, a team quickly falling down the rabbit hole of this season. Tuesday night’s loss to the Utah Jazz marks the Lakers’ sixth straight home loss at Staples Center, once a fortress of solitude for the team … but no more. Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times explains just how severely off track things are for Kobe Bryant‘s crew:

Home bitter home.

The Lakers used to consider Staples Center a haven of victories, a bedrock of five championship runs since the building opened in 1999.

Now they might as well play at a local park.

They lost to the lowly Utah Jazz on Tuesday, 96-79, falling to 8-15 at home and losing six consecutive games at home for the first time since 1992-93.

It’s the cherry on top of several scoops of problems.

Steve Nash left the game for good at halftime, felled again by the same nerve irritation in his back that sidelined him almost three months.

The nerve damage starts in the back and presents itself in his hamstring, making it feel as if it’s strained or pulled.

Whatever euphoria he felt last Friday — 19 points and five assists against Philadelphia on his 40th birthday — was almost absent after Tuesday’s game, though he tried to be upbeat.

“I think I need a little more time to get over the hump,” he told The Times.

He considered sitting out before tipoff but knew the Lakers were short-handed without six injured players.

Nash didn’t look quite right while he played, totaling two points and two assists in 17 minutes. He made one of four shots in his 10th game this season.

The Lakers are shrugging. They don’t know exactly what to do.

“I imagine it’s day to day. I don’t know anything else,” Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni said of Nash’s status. “I haven’t really talked to him.”

Nash’s injury dented some mild excitement the Lakers felt before the game. They were expecting five of their six injured players back shortly after this weekend’s All-Star break.

The lone lingering one, though, was Kobe Bryant, who might be the last Lakers player to return, according to a person familiar with the situation.

He continues to have swelling and pain in his fractured left knee and figures to trail Pau GasolJordan FarmarJodie Meeks and maybe even Xavier Henry in getting back to the court.

***

No. 3: A breakout night for rookie Bennett lifts Cavaliers – It’s taken a while, months basically, but Cleveland Cavaliers rookie Anthony Bennett has finally decided to join the party. Bennett, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 Draft had his breakout game in a win over the Sacramento Kings Tuesday night in Cleveland. It was a much-needed breakthrough for Bennett, whose season has been anything but spectacular up to this point. While Michael Carter-Williams, Trey Burke and Victor Oladipo have all moved past him in the Rookie of the Year race, Bennett is doing well to just ease his way into the public consciousness right now. Mary Schmitt Boyer of the Plain Dealer explains:

Rookie Anthony Bennett drilled a 3-pointer and threw his arms up into the air to celebrate late in the Cavaliers 109-99 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday night at The Q.

“I was just having fun,” said Bennett, who registered his first double-double with career highs of 19 points and 10 rebounds in 29:45 as the Cavs avenged a 124-80 loss in Sacramento on Jan. 12 and improved to 19-33, winning three in a row for the first time since Dec. 7-13.

When was the last time he had fun on the basketball court?

“I don’t remember,” Bennett said. “Today?”

The timing was bittersweet as Bennett, whose selection as the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft has been widely criticized, and his slow start undoubtedly contributed to the firing of general manager Chris Grant last week.

“I’m sure Chris Grant is smiling at home, and deservedly so,” said Sacramento coach — and former Cavs assistant under Mike BrownMike Malone, whose team dropped to 17-35.

Bennett, who had shoulder surgery before the draft last summer and was unable to participate in summer league, has been coming early to practice and staying late, working to regain the form that made him a star last season at UNLV.

His teammates celebrated with him after Tuesday’s breakout game.

“He played a heck of a game tonight,” Kyrie Irving said. “It was awesome. I was a fan.”

Added Luol Deng, who led the Cavs with 22 points, “He’s going to get it. These kind of games are going to come more often.”

***

No. 4: No return for Rose this season, Noah problem for the Bulls? – Hoops fans in Chicago have played this game before and lost, so there is no reason to dive in again this time. Derrick Rose, no matter how many times he hits the floor to shoot before the Bulls play, is not coming back this season. It is NOT happening … right? But if All-Star center Joakim Noah has his way, the dream of a Rose return is still alive. That said, if Noah keeps up his current ways (a triple-double Tuesday night in a win over the visiting Atlanta Hawks), it’ll be much easier for Bulls fans to stomach another season without Rose in uniform. Joe Cowley of the Sun Times delivers the details:

The door was closed — slammed shut months ago by Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau when he said Derrick Rose was lost for the season after tearing his right meniscus Nov. 22 and undergoing surgery.

On Tuesday, center Joakim Noah wedged his size 18 foot into that door, keeping the dream alive for a small minority that believes in unicorns, dragons and quick Rose recoveries.

Asked if he thought Rose could play this postseason, Noah said, ‘‘That’s not my decision. That’s nobody’s decision. It’s all about how he feels. Regardless of what happens, we’re going to be supportive.’’

It went by many different names last year: ‘‘The Return,’’ the Rose watch, the story that wouldn’t die. But in the end, the Bulls never ruled Rose out for the season in his recovery from a torn left anterior cruciate ligament, so hope stayed alive until the final minutes of a Game 5 loss to the Miami Heat in the second round of the playoffs.

The consensus on ‘‘The Return II’’ has been that there wouldn’t be one. But Noah’s comments came on the same day Rose was going through shooting drills with reporters watching, and the story gained legs again — little ones.

‘‘He’s working really hard,’’ Noah said. ‘‘He’s always around the team, being a great leader, showing support to his teammates. Just watching him work every day, I think, is extra motivation for us to go out there and go harder.

‘‘He’s doing a lot more than shooting around. He’s in the gym nonstop, just working on his body getting better. That’s what it’s all about. He’s a big part of this team. He has that mentality of having no regrets. Just give it everything you got. If you can go, you can go. If you can’t, you did everything you could to make it.’’

Thibodeau said Rose was running on the treadmill, but when asked if that was a new development, he quickly said no.

‘‘Still nowhere close to practicing or anything like that,’’ he said, ‘‘but he’s doing well overall.’’


VIDEO: The Fan Night Top 10 delivers a dazzling array of highlights for your viewing pleasure

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Charlotte Bobcats, following the lead of the Phoenix Suns, are simply playing too well to tank … Portland forward Nic Batum can’t fight it anymore, gives up the kudos to Kevin Durant as the best (one-on-one player in the league) … The streak continues for Kyle Korver, thanks to his work in his old stomping grounds … The Miami Heat’s core group is doing the heavy lifting right now and might have to the rest of this season

ICYMI of the Night: NBA TV’s Steve Smith dives deep with LeBron James in this exclusive interview, and yes, there’s more to the interview than the Mount Rushmore talk …


VIDEO: LeBron James talks about what motivates him with NBA TV’s Steve Smith

Emotions Well Up On Road-Weary Bulls


VIDEO: Bulls lose big to Kings in Sacramento

Some percentage of sports is acknowledged to be mental (or emotional or psychological or whatever words you choose to distinguish the thinking-and-feeling stuff from the physical). Fifty percent, some coaches will tell you. More than that – 75 percent – others may contend. Or as Yogi Berra allegedly liked to say, “Ninety percent of this game is half mental.”

The Chicago Bulls, at the moment, are all mental.

Before, during and after their 99-70 loss to the Sacramento Kings Monday night, the Bulls in fact were a hot mess. The most obvious and video-worthy of them was center Joakim Noah, who momentarily lost his mind after being banished in the third quarter with his second technical foul. Noah erupted, going into his own Al Pacino-esque, “You’re out of order! You’re out of order!” movie-courtroom rant, only he directed his wrath and his pointing at three referees rather one judge.

But the Bulls’ center, typically a ball of emotions in the calmest of times, has had plenty of company lately. Forward Carlos Boozer is irritated with his benchings in fourth quarters (he has played only 128 of his 1,314 minutes, less than 10 percent, after the third quarter). Coach Tom Thibodeau is frustrated that Boozer hasn’t absorbed the reasons for those benchings – primarily, backup Taj Gibson is a more stalwart defender, even as he improves offensively – and general manager Gar Forman is disappointed that Boozer shared his irritation with reporters before the team’s shootaround Monday morning at Sleep Train Arena.

Gibson, meanwhile, probably is confused by a wild-hair trade rumor that A) makes no sense for the Bulls, B) seems built off the flimsiest of dots-connecting, and C) makes no sense for the Bulls. Wing Jimmy Butler is flummoxed, or ought to be, by his miserable shooting – 36.8 percent and 27.6 from the arc, after 46.7 and 38.1 in 2012-13.

Reserve Mike Dunleavy should be feeling a little cranky about now, since – to use team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf‘s adjective – this “mediocre” trudge through the schedule wasn’t what Dunleavy imagined when he signed last summer, nor was the trade speculation hovering over him for the next couple of weeks.

And naturally, the whole lot of them sure are forlorn over the loss of point guard Derrick Rose to a second season-ending knee surgery and the subsequent trade of forward Luol Deng as a bag-it move to avoid luxury tax. Deng is heading toward free agency and was unlikely to re-sign at Chicago’s price, so why go into the onerous tax and lock in repeater status for, y’know, a mediocre season?

All of which illustrates that the NBA challenges players’ minds as much as, maybe even more than, their bodies. Mental toughness is a must for teams that want to not just survive but achieve, and really accomplish big things.

The same Bulls team that reeled in the immediate wake of Rose’s injury, losing 12 of 15 in a month’s span, had righted itself through some very physical tactics: Defense and effort. The Deng trade on Jan. 7 sent Noah into a funk, yet he appeared to channel his emotions then into rousing individual performances, stringing together double-doubles and growing his point-center role in the offense.

Now, however, Chicago is halfway through a six-game, 13-day “Ice Show” trip that forces the team out of United Center each year at about this time. A 2014 that began with nine victories in 11 games, bumping them above .500 at 21-20, has turned into a 3-4 slip since. They’re on the road through Sunday, they missed 56 of 78 shots against the Kings’ defense – the Kings’ – and their offense is off the rails (less than 90 points in four of the past five games).

The whole we’ve-seen-this-movie-before storyline, with Rose declared out till October, is wearing on everybody – players, coaches, management, fans – and the Bulls are stuck between their usual plucky selves and the upside-down allure of stumbling their way into the lottery for a deep draft.

Until the Bulls wrap their heads around what’s left of this season, and what it is they really want to be or achieve, there’s nothing physical (other than reliable health of the players who remain) that will help. This is mental.

“The one thing about this league – things can change quickly on you,” Thibodeu told reporters in Sacramento. “And they have. So it went from good to bad very quickly. And just as quickly as it has gone from good to bad it can go from bad to good again. We gotta change. We gotta have more urgency. We gotta work our way out of this.”

Actually, they need to think their way through it.

“We can’t get mired in personal dilemmas,” Thibodeau also said. “You got to get into the team. Get into the circle. That’s what we need to do.”

Thibodeau ‘Trade Rumors’ A Losing Deal

(Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)

Tom Thibodeau has three years left on his contract with the Bulls. (Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)

CHICAGO – So far, amid the wispy speculation and conjecture hovering over coach Tom Thibodeau, the Chicago Bulls and their future together, it was Thibodeau who has had the healthiest perspective.

“Every day there’s something going on [in the media],” Thibodeau said Friday evening. “Now, the rumor about my date with Kate Upton, started by me, I’m not commenting on that either. So let’s move on.”

He got the laughs intended. But this is about something more tawdry than funny.

Common sense and, frankly, a sense of decorum would suggest that anyone dwelling on Thibodeau’s whereabouts beyond this season is, respectively, wasting his or her time and wallowing in something awfully jaded and cynical.

Regarding the former, Thibodeau has three years left on his contract. His coaching skills and work ethic are almost universally lauded throughout the NBA (his minutes management, a little less so). His relationship with Derrick Rose, the star-crossed star in whom the Bulls have many more millions tied up than they do in their head coach, is one of the closest and strongest of its kind in the league.

Thibodeau’s connection with Chicago’s second-best player, Joakim Noah, nearly is as special. And with Thibodeau’s role as a Team USA assistant through the 2016 Olympics, the rapport he develops with top players from throughout the league will only enhance his status as a draw for those hungry to win and willing to work, as well as players eager to have their full potentials tapped into.

The only reasons Bulls management might consider moving on from Thibodeau are bad ones. By the way, it’s worth noting here that the coach and the front office so far have expressed nothing but mutual admiration and respect, though relations have been strained at times over personnel and philosophical disagreements.

But if this were to come down to internal friction between Thibodeau and GM Gar Forman and/or VP of basketball John Paxson, it would be both petty and silly, considering the levels of outrageousness NBA teams routinely tolerate from players. Cast aside a proven, eminently qualified basketball mind with occasionally divergent viewpoints for a corporate “Yes” man? Stop nodding so obsequiously, please.

If it’s a case of Thibodeau not being on board with an unstated organizational goal, not simply to “retool” the Bulls but to tear down and start over – specifically, by losing as often as possible this season to enhance lottery odds – then the management would have an equally tough sell with their fan base.

Sure, there is a segment that lives for the bright, unsullied “future,” whatever and whenever it is, over the stark reality of any particular present. There are Bulls fans, too, who got spoiled by the 2008 leap to No. 1, on a 1.7 percent chance, to land Rose in the first place, as if their favorite team’s mere presence in the lottery would guarantee a top prize. It wouldn’t.

Besides, if the Bulls wanted to go back to employing the Vinny Del Negros of the coaching world, well, they had the real deal on the payroll just four years ago.

Beyond wrong reasons, though, this sort of maneuver feels plain wrong. It’s a threshold that was unseemly enough when Doc Rivers, Danny Ainge and the Los Angeles Clippers “went there” last summer and, were it to become a thing, it could lead to all sorts of instability and turmoil across the league.

As a one-off, the Celtics-Clippers “trade” of Rivers was interesting, a ramification of Boston’s sudden veer into rebuilding and Rivers’ absence of appetite for same. With key veterans (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry, on the heels of Ray Allen a year earlier) being purged, it seemed of a piece. And Ainge planned to dig deep, targeting a prime pick in the 2014 Draft.

The thought was, Rivers – having led Boston to the 2008 championship – wouldn’t want to roll up his sleeves and start over in his 15th season as a head coach. So he and they finagled a way to get him out West with a roster more ready to win, while the Celtics saved money on their head coach’s salary and got everyone in the organization flow chart on the same page (with the exception of some proud players in the locker room).

Few of those factors are at play for the Bulls and Thibodeau. This is only his fourth season as a head coach. There has been no ring, not even a trip to The Finals. Rose’s second season-ending knee injury, and the Jan. 7 trade of free-agent-to-be Luol Deng, hardly is an orchestrated rebuild.

Then there is Thibodeau’s single-minded and single-geared approach to winning. If that’s a reason to shed him, the Bulls would need to immediately slash their ticket prices by 20 percent or more because it would raise a competitive white flag over the entire organization. Nothing would drive home the suspicions that management loves selling out United Center and ogling the Forbes valuations – Chicago Bulls: $1 billion – more than it loves winning than cutting ties with a coach who eats, drinks and sleeps it.

Even Rivers could see the folly in Chicago doing with Thibodeau what Boston did with, and for, him.

“I think it would be nuts not to have him here,” Rivers said of his friend and former assistant. “He’s the best coach, one of the best coaches in this league. So if you have that, that’s an asset. And I don’t think any right-minded organization would allow that asset to leave. Because with all this adversity they’ve had with injuries, if you allow that one to leave, things will fall apart. And that would be pretty much a guarantee.”

Rose, again in need of a fresh start, could leave – which, given Bulls’ luck, probably would be a guarantee of his return to form as an All-Star point guard. Noah, already rocked by Deng’s trade, might never fully recover. Thibodeau’s ability to plumb the depths of a player’s skill set, to get more out of less (i.e., late first-rounders Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell) and to convince players he coaches not for vanity, not for money but for one valid reason … it all could be gone.

And frankly, Thibodeau hasn’t done enough, long enough, to merit any such “favor” by the Bulls. Since when can’t he abide a team hitting the reset button? That’s a conceit as unflattering as bosses being unable or unwilling to work through a little disagreement from the sideline.

Also, does the NBA really want to create and live with a coaches trade market? Do owners want to start ripping up and bidding up contracts — as opposed to routinely paying off the fellows they fire — in a category of employees where there is no salary cap? Would coaches — even if they found the leverage advantageous and the clamor for their services in other markets flattering — want to be cast as specialists, where some of them become known only as builders or maintainers or closers or, ahem, tankers?

And what impact might it all have in the locker rooms, if players start to adapt to a world in which they not only can get a coach fired but maybe get him traded?

I asked Rivers before the Clippers’ game in Chicago Friday about the precedent he might have set, the ripple effects and unforeseen consequences of his team switcheroo.

“I didn’t do it for that effect,” he said. “If it does help coaches, then great, I’ll look at it that way. It’s not why I did it.”

It is, however, the only reason it’s become a topic of conversation and rumors in Chicago.

Young, Augustin Shine As Understudies


VIDEO: The Bulls outlast the Lakers in an overtime thriller

CHICAGO – The guy in purple and gold with the nifty Nike low-cuts, playing shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, tormented Chicago all evening. He scored 17 points in 20 minutes in the first half, coolly drained three free throws near the end of regulation to tie, then scored five of the Lakers’ seven points in overtime.

The Bulls’ point guard, meanwhile, was just as busy, scoring 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting – and an uncommonly hot 5-of-7 from the arc – to lead Chicago to a two-point victory. He didn’t get to the foul line all that much (2-of-3) and his four assists were matched or surpassed by four teammates. But the Bulls need scoring these days from the guy dominating the basketball, so the point guard gave them that.

Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose? Nope. Not unless you squinted really, really hard, at which point you might have mistaken crew chief Joey Crawford for George Clooney.

It was Nick Young and D.J. Augustin, respectively, on Understudy Night at United Center Monday. They took on the roles normally played by the more famous-but-injured stars and nailed those performances that it drove some of the conversation afterward.

“I can’t play like Kobe. There’s only one Kobe, right?” said Young, who had 29 points against Toronto 24 hours earlier and has scored 28 or more in three of his last four games.

A couple teammates within ear shot started to react to that storyline. Lakers big man Jordan Hill, dressing a few feet away, laughed and said, “Kobe gets dimes, he gets assists. He gets rebounds.”

“Kobe’s been a great mentor to me,” Young said, sounding a little embarrassed. “Just telling me all kinds of things during games. That’s been unbelievable for me this whole year, learning from one of the greatest players to play this game.”

Denials aside, the apparent ease with which Young and Augustin have stepped into their teams’ voids has some folks asking that age-old NBA question: Individual talent or system? No one is suggesting that either has swiped the superhero cape out of Bryant’s and Rose’s closets quite yet, but this is more than Little Man clomping around in Dad’s shoes. Both came off the bench Monday but played starters’ minutes, which will keep coming.

If Young can parlay a half season of some on-court and more off-court wisdom from Bryant into 29 points a game, if Augustin can air-drop into Chicago seven weeks ago, learn Rose’s lines and hits his marks at game time, there is more going on here than impersonations.

“I know Coach [Tom Thibodeau] is just giving me ultimate confidence and running a lot of pick-and-roll stuff, which I feel comfortable with,” Augustin said. “That’s what I’ve been known for.”

It’s no small feat for Young to find his scoring opportunities within Mike D’Antoni‘s game plan each night for the Lakers, though having Bryant, Steve Nash, Steve Blake and even Xavier Henry sidelined has cleared the way lately. Augustin’s responsibilities for Chicago include running the offense and finding open teammtes in their spots.

But then, Nate Robinson plugged the Rose hole last season to great effect. Augustin has done it without a training camp, on the fly, with a team freshly demoralized by another Rose knee injury.

“D.J.’s playing great basketball for us,” center Joakim Noah said. “He’s playing really confident basketball right now. He’s a good fit. He makes the right play all the time. The right pass. The big shots. He can really shoot the ball.

“We need scoring. And he’s been doing a good job of just getting guys the right shot, and scoring as well.”

In his past six games, Augustin has averaged 18.0 points, 7.0 assists and 2.8 assists. Rose, in the 10 games he logged before going down with a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee, had worked back to 15.9 ppg, 4.3 apg and 3.2 rpg.

“All I’m thinking about right now is just going out and playing hard,” Augustin said. “Whatever Thibs runs, whatever plays he runs, I’m just trying to run it and do the best I can. Like I said, he runs a lot of pick-and-roll stuff. That’s what I’m comfortable with and it’s working for us.”

Augustin, in fact, said, he is feeling Charlotte-comfortable again. That’s the last place he played this much — 29.3 minutes per game in 2011-12 with the Bobcats, on par with the 29.4 he’s averaging for the Bulls — and the last place he was this productive.

“I didn’t get an opportunity the last two years in my career,” Augustin said. “When I was in Charlotte, I played the same way I’m playing now. The last two years at Toronto and Indiana, I didn’t get an opportunity. When I play a lot of minutes, I think I play pretty good.”

Young’s minutes — with Bryant limited to a six-game cameo appearance in December between his Achilles tendon comeback and his current left knee fracture — are up to 28.7, his most since 2010-11 in Washington. His per-36 stats — 21.4 points, 16.8 FGA — are personal highs, if not at Kobe levels.

“Each guy’s an individual,” D’Antoni said before tipoff Monday. “Nick does a great job. He’s got a lot of energy, he brings a lot of energy. He’s a good guy. A good teammate.

“When he gets the ball in his hands, he can score. That’s what he does. You can see the joy on his face when he’s playing and he has no fear. So the fourth quarter is no problem, but it could be the first quarter, second quarter. He’s still coming at you.”

It’s the NBA equation: Talent plus confidence equals success. At the moment, it happens to be coming for the Lakers and the Bulls, respectively, from familiar spots.


VIDEO: Nick Young takes it up strong on the Bulls’ defense

Finally Noah Talks Of His ‘Brother,’ ‘No Tanking’ And Making A City Proud

VIDEO: Bulls keep rolling, drop ‘Cats

CHICAGO – Joakim Noah, rocked by the Chicago Bulls’ trade of teammate Luol Deng more than the rest, needed a minute, as they say, to collect his thoughts. He needed more than 7,000 minutes as it turned out, putting off the inquiring minds and prying eyes for five days and eight possible media sessions in the aftermath of Monday’s late-night, team-jolting transaction.

Finally, near the end Saturday night, Noah shared his feelings. One of the league’s most emotional players spoke softly, sometimes haltingly. This wasn’t just about basketball.

“The trade definitely hurt. But we’ve got to move on,” Noah said, sitting at his dressing stall after the Bulls’ 103-97 victory over Charlotte at United Center. “I feel confident in this team. We’re working really hard. A lot of people say this is a business and all that. This game is more than a business to me. I put everything I got into this. So … I feel like Lu is the same way, so it was hard for me to digest. That’s just my perspective.

“Everybody has a job. I’m not mad at anybody. I’m not mad at the organization or anything like that. It’s just, my brother’s not here no more.

“I just needed a little bit of time to digest that.”

The passion Noah brings to his “job” separates him from some of the league’s clock-punchers. The meaning he finds in its essence, the bonds and the friendships, are dialed up for the Bulls center a little more than most. Lots of players accept, grudgingly or not, the “it’s a business” outlook because it offers a shred of Kevlar when dealings, like this one, turn rough.

Noah works without a vest.

“We’re just going to go out there and give it everything we’ve got. There’s no tanking. There’s no … None of that,” he said, with a little defiance. “We’re going to go out there and give 150 percent and when people say ‘Chicago Bulls,’ I want people in Chicago to be proud of that. Even if there’s four guys hurt, guys are hurting, no matter who’s out…”

The Bulls (17-18) won for the fifth consecutive time and have taken eight of 10, creeping up on the No. 4 seed in the East. They’re winning with the likes of D.J. Augustin and Tony Snell where Derrick Rose and Deng used to be, with Mike Dunleavy taking on Deng’s starting role and a 10-day pickup like Cartier Martin chipping in 11 points and 26 minutes barely 24 hours after his arrival.

Noah scored 19 points with 14 rebounds, a human Taser again with the energy zap, orchestrating the Bulls’ attack out top like he had tuxedo tails and a baton. In his last six games, Noah has averaged 12.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 5.7 assists. The three since Deng was sent packing to Cleveland? No dip whatsoever.

“All this adversity just makes me stronger,” Noah said. “It just makes me stronger as a person and as a player. I’ve never been so hungry. We’ve been through a lot. Derrick’s injury was really hard. Lu not being here is really hard. But we’re going to go out there. Like I said, there’s no tank in this team, and we’re going to go out there and really make this city proud.”

Some of the bigger-picture stuff, like coach Tom Thibodeau‘s strategic adjustments, management’s grand plan and how the changes in the team might impact Noah’s vision, he wasn’t ready to tackle. Asked, for instance, if he felt the Bulls’ front office still was trying to win, he said: “Yep. Yep. I think so. I don’t have to be happy with the decision that they made. Everybody has a job to do. … I wanted him to stay but I’ve got to live with it.”

Does he understand why Deng, who will be a free agent this summer, was dealt once he turned down a reported three-year, $30 million extension offer, the triggered pulled now rather than losing him for nothing in the summer?

“Uh, it’s hard to say. Because at the end of the day, that’s my brother,” Noah said. “He’s not here anymore. That’s how I see it. They see the game differently. They’re not out there on the court. They’re not out there on the plane. They don’t know how much Lu meant to me personally.”

Looking beyond this season, with the uncertainty over Rose’s health and level of play, Deng’s absence, amnesty speculation about forward Carlos Boozer and the slamming of this group’s window as a contender, was Noah getting a sense of their sudden new world?

“I’m not there. I’m not there,” he said. “That’s not my job. All I can do is help this team stay focused on the next day, the task at hand. Be out there on the court. Be a good leader. Keep everybody’s energy levels high.”

But then, just in case management had some lottery dreams, more crafty maneuvers and added overhauls in mind, Noah threw up a deft block. He essentially offered up his mission statement on Chicago basketball. No advanced analytics or clinical assessment of “expiring assets” welcome, thank you.

“This is a city that, when I come to the game, I see the guy selling newspapers on the street, it’s cold outside,” Noah said. “When he sees me driving by, he’s excited. You know what I mean? He’s excited, he’s like, ‘Let’s go Bulls, get it done tonight!’ I feel like I play for that guy.

“When I look at the top of the arena and Thibs is about to call timeout, I look up top and see a guy who looks this big [tiny], and he’s up cheering, jumping up and down, that’s the guy I play for.

“That’s what the city represents. There’s a lot of hardship here, a lot of adversity in this city. And I feel like whenever I play basketball, I want people to be proud of their team.”

Blogtable: Better Future, Bulls Or Cavs?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


Future pick: CHI or CLE | High-energy stud | DMC an All-Star?


Kyrie Irving (David Liam Kyle/NBAE)

Kyrie Irving (David Liam Kyle/NBAE)

If you had to bet on which team will be better in three years, who would you pick: Chicago or Cleveland?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comCleveland. They’re younger and they’ve already turned the allure of “future Draft picks” into high draft selections such as Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and, er, Anthony Bennett. The Bulls have to hope they get lucky with the pick they have coming from Charlotte or steal someone with the Kings pick from the Deng deal. Then there is the dueling luck of landing the No. 1 pick for an elite point guard. Well, Irving hasn’t had any injury as debilitating, and ominous, as Derrick Rose’s two knee blowouts. Since Chicago never has proven an ability to lure the top free agents, they’re pretty evenly matched in how they can improve. The Cavs’ assets just have a greater upside.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: You always start by deciding which team has the best individual player and I’m taking Derrick Rose over Kyrie Irving while assuming that LeBron James won’t return to the Cavs. At this point there is no reason to think back-to-back Rose injuries are anything but bad luck and in three years the former MVP will be healthy, still only 28 and the key piece to build around. In three years Joakim Noah is only 31, Jimmy Butler 26. Then there are all the Draft picks and roster flexibility that was just gained by trading Luol Deng.  To start with, Chicago potentially has three lottery picks in the loaded 2014 Draft. When they amnesty Carlos Boozer, there will also be cap space that could attract a big-name free agent.

Chicago's Tom Thibodeau (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE)

Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau
(Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.comChicago. The Bulls still have solid players on the roster. Derrick Rose will be back. Lots of Draft picks being accumulated and cap space coming if/when amnesty Carlos Boozer this summer. Great coach who gets most out of his players. Potential is there for a fast rebuild. Cleveland? Not so much.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comChicago, because of the track record of the front office compared to Cleveland’s recent history. Because if Tom Thibodeau is still the coach, the Bulls will have an advantage over most teams in that department. Because Cleveland has mostly only produced on lottery night. Derrick Rose is obviously the great unknown for the Bulls, while the Cavaliers have Kyrie Irving. The certainty, though, is that Chicago is the organization that has shown it can build something.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: It’s impossible to know who each team will add or subtract in the next few years, if Derrick Rose will ever be back to his former self, or if Tom Thibodeau will last another three years in Chicago. But a core of Rose (28 in three years), Jimmy Butler (27), Nikola Mirotic (25), Taj Gibson (31) and Joakim Noah (31) should be stronger than the Cavs’ current core three years from now, because most of those Chicago guys are two-way players. Of course, I don’t necessarily believe in the Bulls organization’s willingness to keep a veteran (and somewhat expensive) core together.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comI’m not a betting man. But if I had to choose, I’m going with Chicago, based mostly on their track record compared to that of the Cavaliers in recent seasons. The Cavaliers haven’t shown any propensity for getting it right since losing LeBron James to free agency, so I’m not ready to wager anything on them at this point. From Drafts and trades to free agency armed with ample cap space, they’ve just missed the mark at almost every turn. And thanks to the Luol Deng-Andrew Bynum deal, the Bulls have assets and the promise (however fragile it might be right now) of Derrick Rose returning to some shape and or form of the MVP and All-Star he was before his knee injuries changed the game. The Bulls have tons of flexibility to work with as they rebuild the core group of a team had exhausted its possibilities. I know Tom Thibodeau isn’t pleased and might not stick around to see the new core come to fruition. But again, the possibilities are endless!

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: There are a lot of ways to parse this but to me, Chicago has Derrick Rose, Cleveland has Kyrie Irving, and that’s a pretty simple and fair way to decide this thing. I know Cleveland was supposed to be the young and up-and-coming team this season, but they’ve been that team for a while now and haven’t been able to make that jump into being a genuine Playoff contender, either because of injuries or because of personnel missteps. This latest trade for Luol Deng might get them into the postseason this season, but trading a handful of picks for a guy who will be a free agent this summer doesn’t really speak to long-term planning. And yeah, I know Derrick Rose has had injury issues, but for me, having a recent MVP on the roster means I go with Chicago.

Philipp Dornhegge, NBA Deutschland: It’s all about Derrick Rose’s health for Chicago, but assuming that he’ll return to form sooner or later, I go with the Bulls. They have already established a winning culture and can rely on a great core that is still young: Rose, Butler, Noah, Gibson, Snell. They will add Nicola Mirotic next summer and probably have two first-round picks in a deep Draft. If they amnesty Boozer, they will also have some financial flexibility.

Akshay Manwani, NBA India: For now, I would pick Cleveland. The Cavaliers have fewer variables to deal with and have more all-around young talent on their squad set to pop over the next three years. With Chicago, we don’t know how Derrick Rose will recover, whether they will amnesty Carlos Boozer and land a big free agent and even whether or not they will continue with the coaching staff down the road, given how injuries have piled up over the past few years.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: Chicago. First of all, they start at a better place right now than the Cavs. Secondly, they have a great coach that can built a solid team despite injuries or any kind of problems. Thirdly, everybody hopes that Derrick Rose will be back at his top form in three years. Fourthly, by shipping Deng they made a lot of cap space and the potential to make the moves they want over the summer.

Heavy Mettle: Losing Deng Steels Bulls


VIDEO: Joakim Noah leads Chicago to a victory against Phoenix

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.”


VIDEO: Taj Gibson talks about the departure of Luol Deng and the Bulls’ victory