“What’s going on over there?” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau asked, as a huge contingent of media huddled around Joakim Noah’s locker.
Thibodeau, who was in a rare jovial mood—at least occasionally—during his postgame press conference, knew the answer: Thursday night, the All-Star center recorded a triple-double of 23 points, 21 rebounds and 11 blocked shots—tying a franchise mark for most blocks in a regulation game, set by Artis Gilmore back in 1977, during the same game in which he had the last triple-double in the three categories by a Bulls player—to will the Bulls to a 93-82 victory over Philadelphia at the United Center.
Not only did the much-needed win allow the short-handed squad—without both top reserve Taj Gibson, out for the second consecutive game with a sprained left MCL, and starter Rip Hamilton, who was a late scratch due to lower back spasms—to close out a rough month of February on a positive note, but it occurred against the 76ers, the team that ousted the Bulls from last year’s playoffs, its fans cheering when Noah severely sprained his ankle during the first-round series.
“It feels really good to play well, to win, especially against the Sixers,” Noah said. “That was probably one of my biggest motivations, just rehabbing my ankle. Before the playoffs started last year, I really felt like we were in position to win the championship and Derrick went down, and it was very hard on the team and then getting injured, and just the [Sixers] fans, the way they reacted, I kind of used that as motivation.”
A whirlwind of perpetual motion on the floor on a nightly basis, Noah played like a man possessed Thursday, seemingly using sheer determination to ensure that the Bulls ended the evening successfully, while just happening to notch his third career triple-double—his second this season and first in his career with blocks—in the process.
“I wanted to get it, but I wanted to win more. It was a good win for us and hopefully we can build on it. We’ve got some tough opponents coming up, teams that we could face, possibly, in the playoffs. It’s a good win for us, we needed it bad and now we’ve just got to keep going,” explained Noah, who admitted that teammate Carlos Boozer—who called the performance a “legendary game”—informed him when he was nearing the feat. “I think I played my game. I’m not somebody who’s going to score in the post. It just depends on where the ball bounces, I guess. I’m going [to the backboard for rebounds] every time.”
“We just had to find a way and we just had to keep getting better. We haven’t been playing at a very high level. It sucks to lose and it feels good to get the win,” he continued. “We’ve just got to stay focused. I think if we play with the right mindset and we play for one another, and we play to our capabilities, we can make some noise. But it’s going to take a lot of work and it’s going to be a lot of adversity, and everyone knows, once the playoffs come, it’s not easy. So, we’ve just got to keep fighting and keep improving because we’re not playing our best basketball right now.”
As outgoing as Noah can be, he’s reluctant to praise himself or discuss his individual achievements; his coach was willing to do it for him.
“That was spectacular. It was such a big effort game from him. His will, from the start of the game to the end, was just incredible,” Thibodeau lauded. “He’s an energy, effort player. When you get an effort like that, that unites and inspires your team, and it makes other guys do the same.
“Jo made some big-time plays when that game was on the line. Whether it was a blocked shot, rebound in traffic, a tip-in, whatever was necessary for us to have success, he was doing it,” he went on to say. “He was everywhere and not only the blocked shots, but he did a lot of switching, he was guarding everyone. It was like big-time multiple effort, sometimes three, four, five efforts on the same play. It’s a credit to how he’s conditioned himself and keeps getting better, and I still think there’s a lot of room for growth.”
Fellow All-Star Luol Deng, who’s witnessed the development of the rookie version of Noah to the current player, an elite NBA center, added: “Unbelievable. Just a whole lot of energy. His energy was unbelievable. His help-side [defense], rebounding the ball, it was just great.”
Kirk Hinrich, another veteran teammate, chimed in: “He’s obviously come a long ways, but when you play with that kind of energy, it sets you up to have a great night and every night, he’s kind of our motor. He brings the energy for us. You could tell tonight he was feeling a little better. Even before the game, you could tell he was going to play well…I really didn’t even realize it. I knew he had a bunch of rebounds and a bunch of points, but then I looked up and I saw he had 11 blocks and I was like, ‘Wow,’ so very impressive.”
Jimmy Butler marveled: “I feel like he’s been doing it a lot though lately. If it’s with assists or blocks—heck, next it may be steals—but he’s a team player. He’s always helping. That’s a getting assists type of guy and that’s blocking shots, I feel like. He’s all over the floor every time he’s on the court, so it makes it easy for him to put up that stat line.”
While Butler, only in his second professional season, doesn’t realize that might not always be the case, the fact that it’s possible for a center capable of racking up double-digit points and rebounds nightly is also able to dish out double-digit assists or swat double-digit opponents’ shots—though not all on the same night; that feat was achieved by Nate Thurmond, in his 1974 Bulls debut, in which he blocked a franchise-record 12 shots in an overtime game—is indeed remarkable.
And the fact that Noah did it when it counted, a crucial juncture in the season when the Bulls needed it most, makes it that much more special.