Whether Joakim Noah is actually named an All Star won’t matter to the Bulls.
His teammates believe he’s one, his numbers say he’s playing like one and he’s been the leading force behind the team winning 10 of their last 14 games, most recently a 103-78 win over the 76ers on Saturday night at the United Center.
Noah, as he’s done the last month, did a little bit of everything in the win, scoring 21 points on 9-for-14 shooting, grabbing 16 rebounds and adding three assists, two steals and four blocked shots in another stat-stuffing box score that has that coach and those teammates singing his praises.
“He’s doing just about everything. Laundry, everything,” head coach Tom Thibodeau said with a smile. “You can’t play any better than he’s playing right now. In every aspect of the game, the defense has been there all season, the rebounding off the charts; but the playmaking, the decisions, quick decisions, multiple effort, it sets the tone for our team.”
Saturday night began slow for Noah, who missed his only two shot attempts and grabbed two rebounds in seven first-quarter minutes. Carlos Boozer (eight points, five rebounds), Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy (four points apiece) picked up the slack, helping the Bulls to a 24-19 lead after one stanza.
It wasn’t until the second quarter, not coincidentally when Noah’s monster night began, that the Bulls began to pull away. It began when Sixers center Spencer Hawes failed to close out on Noah, who sank an 18-footer from the right wing to get himself on the board. Three plays later he scored a layup off a pass from reserve guard D.J. Augustin. Later in the sequence he had a dunk and assist in transition and finished the quarter with a layup that put the Bulls up 20, 49-29.
Noah finished the second quarter alone with eight points and four rebounds, and he added nine points and five rebounds in the decisive third quarter, giving him 17 points and nine rebounds in 16 minutes. He finished his night with eight tough minutes in the fourth quarter, grabbing five rebounds and two steals to complete his night and get the Bulls one step closer to .500.
“He’s been winning us games, that’s what he’s been doing, on both ends of the floor,” Butler said. “He’s been huge. His leadership role, energy he brings, making shots, defending, passing the ball, he’s an All Star. He’s playing like one.”
Noah did not speak with the media for days following the team’s trade of good friend and teammate Luol Deng. Thibodeau said it was tough on Noah, who was dealing with his frustrations and emotions on the court. In six games since Deng was dealt, Noah is averaging 15 points and 17.1 rebounds while the Bulls, left for dead by many after dealing their leading scorer, are an impressive 4-2.
“I think that you have to have a lot of pride when you wear the Bulls jersey and I think guys respect that, and we’re not going to quit. We’re going to just live in the moment, enjoy playing the game in front of a lot of great fans and see where it goes.”
Respect and effort are one thing Noah will never have problems with, but during the first month of the season, health was. After missing all of training camp dealing with a groin injury, Noah struggled to regain his touch on offense and conditioning.
Those struggles seem like forever ago to Noah, who says he’s as healthy as he’s been in a long time. In his last 20 games, he’s averaging 13 points on 47-percent shooting and 13.7 rebounds.
“I feel good on the court. I feel very comfortable. I haven’t felt healthy like this in a long time. My feet don’t hurt, body’s feeling good so just try to take it game-by-game and enjoy it.”
Because of the slow start, Noah’s numbers to date aren’t as good as they were last year when he was named to his first All-Star team. Thibodeau said the Bulls’ 19-20 record might have a negative effect on voting — “I hope we can correct this shortly,” he said — but the head coach also gave a ringing endorsement to the player who is both emotionally holding the Bulls together and statistically putting them back in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
“I’m biased. And to me, he’s playing as well as any big man in the league. When you look at what he’s done,” Thibodeau said. “But I think he’s leading the way.”