UPDATE: Noah was named as an Eastern Conference All-Star reserve Thursday night.
NEW ORLEANS — What a difference a few days makes.
Joakim Noah left the United Center prior to Monday’s Bulls’ loss to Minnesota because of illness and his absence was felt on both ends of the floor against the Timberwolves. At Wednesday morning’s shootaround in San Antonio, he didn’t appear to be feeling much better at the outset of the Bulls’ six-game road trip, but then he extended his double-digit rebounding streak to 17 consecutive games with a 10-point, 10-rebound, eight-assist, four-blocked shot outing against future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan to lead the Bulls past the Spurs.
“He’s fine now,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau quipped afterwards. “You guys all know he’s not a morning person.”
Though Noah is a notorious night owl, that’s simplifying things a bit.
The Bulls’ center, who made his debut All-Star appearance a year ago, is poised to be selected again Thursday evening, when selections are announced. Despite the Bulls mistakenly releasing a video congratulating Noah — it was premature, according to team officials, and was done only in preparation, however likely it is — he won’t know until officially given word while the team has an off day prior to Saturday night’s game against the Pelicans.
“One day at a time, man. Just taking it one day at a time. Trying to stay focused, trying to get healthy,” Noah said, when asked about the possibility Wednesday morning. “It’s not about that. I’m just focused on the moment right now. I feel like [expletive] and I’m just trying to get back healthy, and not worry about last year. Not worry about what’s going to happen or not going to happen in a couple days. Just trying to be ready to play.”
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After a slow start to the season, prompted by missing almost all of training camp, Noah has taken his game to another level as of late, stepping up in the wake of Derrick Rose’s season-ending knee injury and more recently, after Luol Deng was traded to Cleveland. Not only has he reprised his role from last season as the Bulls’ primary playmaker and defensive anchor, Noah has taken on more leadership responsibility, even if he won’t admit to it.
“Nah, just being me. I don’t think it’s changed at all,” he said. “I think that’s just you guys [the media], to be honest with you. I don’t think I’m doing anything different.”
But when talking to his teammates and coaches, the free-spirited 28-year-old’s growth is apparent.
“Look at him,” Jimmy Butler said after a recent shootaround, as Noah, the last player to leave the floor, went through extra drills with Bulls assistant coach Ed Pinckney. “He’s out there working. That’s what he does. It’s so easy to go out there and work when you have a leader like that, that’s constantly trying to make his game back in every aspect of it. As long as he keeps leading us and he keeps working like that, myself, the young guys, we’re going to follow in those footsteps.”
“Jo does so much, on offense and on defense. He can guard so many positions, you can switch him on to guys, he rebounds, passes the ball well, and just his energy and the leadership that he brings, it’s tough not having him out there.”
Kirk Hinrich concurred: “He’s come a long ways. When I was with him as a rookie, I knew that the talent and the ability was there, and he’s just matured so much. The main thing about Jo is he brings it every night. He’s an elite rebounder, an elite passer, which is rare for a guy his size. The things he does for us speaks volumes.”
Taj Gibson added: “He’s just being back to being a facilitator, being in charge of the defense, real talkative. He’s been going extremely hard. You can tell he really gives his all. He lays it out on the court.”
Thibodeau doesn’t always see eye to eye with Noah, but what the pair have in common is that they’re both incredibly intense competitors, who prize winning above everything else. The coach, who rarely speaks negatively about individual players publicly, let his feelings be known about the center missing the majority of the preseason, but the way Noah has raised his level of play has made that a distant memory these days.
“I think he’s grown quite a bit. I think his playmaking has been incredible, but his defense has always been there. His rebounding has always been there, but he’s much more of a complete player now,” said Thibodeau, who believes Noah is in the midst of his best season as a professional. “I think he’s gotten comfortable. The thing that I like right now, probably the biggest improvement has been his quick decision-making. He’s not holding on to the ball and he’s making great reads. And they’re very instinctive and it allows your offense—and I think that’s really helped our three-point shooting because he’s making quick decisions with the ball.
[HIGHLIGHTS: Bulls start road trip with win over Spurs]
“You see what he does. What you can’t overlook is the importance of passing and what it means to your team, and what it does for your team. Passing makes other people better and Jo’s very unselfish. He’s going to hit the open man, makes the game easy, sets screens, gets to the offensive boards. That stuff goes a long way. Sometimes you don’t necessarily see it statistically, but that movement and the playmaking. I thought we had gotten into a pretty good rhythm offensively, where we had a good balance. Inside, outside, ball hitting the paint, rhythm threes and that sort of thing. The one thing that I think Jo has really improved upon is he’s making much quicker decisions and so, I think it’s hard for the defense to catch up when he’s doing that. The way he’s making those decisions, where it’s quick and he’s right on the money with the play. So he has the ability to read the play, what’s going on and lead guys into their strengths. He’s playing at a very, very high level right now,” he went on to say. “He’s terrific and he’s having a great season on both sides of the ball. I think he’s doing a good job with his leadership also. But again, we have a team of leaders and we have to understand what goes into winning, and you have to do it day after day after day. You can’t short-cut that process and you have to put the work into the game. And when you’re down players like we are, you have to play with a rare intensity for the entire game. You can’t ease into the game, you can’t take plays off and you’ve got to understand how important that is. And when winning’s important to the team, that’s what happens.”
As impressive as they are, Noah’s averages of 11.7 points, 11.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.1 steals per game don’t tell the whole story. His defensive prowess, which allows him to be an intimidating shot-blocking presence, yet guard quick point guards when switching on pick-and-rolls has gotten its due in the form of him making the NBA’s All-Defensive Team.
But offensively, with his “Tornado” jumper, less than consistent post moves and lack of gaudy scoring, Noah often gets overlooked. His uncanny passing ability, feel for the game and in another season without the playmaking talents of the aforementioned Rose, being the Bulls’ primary facilitator on a nightly basis, is nothing short of remarkable.
“Yeah, he’s probably right behind Brad Miller,” said Hinrich, referencing his former teammate, the player Noah credits for helping develop his high-post passing game. “He’s a very good passer. It’s just a knack. He’s always been that way. In this league, that’s kind of been who he is, a high-energy guy, great passer, great team guy. He does so many little things. You can’t say enough about what he does for our team.”
Thibodeau credited the Bulls’ opponent Wednesday, the Spurs, for helping him see better ways how to utilize Noah, as well as his experience in Boston, coaching Kevin Garnett.
“You have to give the Spurs a lot of credit because of how they play. I think Duncan is terrific for them. All their bigs pass the ball well, so they’re a good team to watch, in terms of how they play on both ends of the floor. Garnett is a great passer, very unselfish, can read things extremely well,” he explained. “Jo is unique because he can also bust out with a defensive rebound, so you have that component. Then, you also have the pick-and-roll. I like the pick-and-roll sometimes in which we throw the ball to him first and then you let him touch it back. I think that’s hard to guard.”
But Thibodeau won’t lobby his coaching counterparts to vote Noah into February’s All-Star Game, which will be held in this city, after unsuccessfully appealing for Deng in his first season at the held of the Bulls.
“No, I don’t like doing that. I think Jo’s performance, it speaks for itself,” the coach explained. “He’s had a great season so far. I think he’s very deserving and more importantly, it’s what he’s doing for our team. I think he’s been a great leader and he’s played great on both sides of the ball.”
Noah’s teammates, however, were vociferous in their feeling that the center should be selected.
I think Jo is more of a team guy, but he deserves to be an All-Star, so it definitely means a lot to him. He deserves it. He’s definitely playing like one,” Butler said. “I think he’s going to be on the All-Star team.”
Gibson chimed in: “Hands down. Hands down! What big man do you know, goes out there, averaging a double-double, handles the ball full court, gives assists, plays 48 minutes sometimes, does his job. He’s been playing phenomenal. He’s still one of the top bigs in the East.”
Said Hinrich: “Yeah, I’d be shocked [if Noah didn’t make it]. But you feel like it’s in the coaches’ hands and they understand the game as well as anybody, so I’m confident he’ll probably get in.
As for Noah, who went from too sick to play, to playing a major role in winning an important road game, while he prefers not to overly focus on his own individual exploits, did admit to one truth: “Winning cures everything.”