The metamorphosis of Joakim Noah into a true superstar — not just a beloved local hero with an increased national profile or a high-energy role player who just specializes in the intangibles — is happening right before our eyes.
Sunday afternoon’s 95-88 Bulls’ overtime win over the Heat at the United Center was just the latest evidence of this fact. The All-Star center filled up the stat sheet with 20 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and five blocked shots, but most significantly, none of that came as a surprise to anybody.
There was a time when Noah’s mere presence was enough, simply running the floor like a madman, rebounding like he was possessed and playing frenetic enough defense that any scoring was gravy and a few glimpses of his uncanny passing ability was a bonus. But now, playing his usual defensive and rebounding responsibilities are expected to be complemented by his role as the Bulls’ offensive hub, which not includes functioning as the team’s primary playmaker, but also a consistent scoring threat.
Besides Miami’s LeBron James, whose subpar outing played a part in the Bulls’ success, there’s arguably no player in the league, let alone another center, successfully carrying a bigger all-around burden than Noah.
“I’m working on my game. I’ve never felt so confident as a basketball player and I think that Derrick [Rose] gives me a lot of confidence, too. Just always telling me what I need to work on, what type of shots I’ve got to take for when he comes back. Stuff like that. Just giving me confidence. When you’ve got a player of his caliber, just always in my ear, telling me things to do to get better, it’s a good feeling,” Noah said, referring to the team’s sidelined point guard. “I’m feeling good out there. I’m comfortable. My teammates — we played a great game today. Even when things weren’t going our way, we just kept fighting and I’m just proud of my teammates. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about competing and I feel like we’re competing every night, giving everything we’ve got.”
As usual, Noah, as demonstrative he is on the floor, is modest when asked to describe his own play. But ask others about his impact and they don’t hesitate to gush.
“Dominant,” Bulls sixth man Taj Gibson said of Noah’s performance Sunday. “He was talking trash to them the whole night. He was in there the whole night, letting them know that he’s going after every rebound, that he’s going to try to score every time he gets it and he was really telling them everything that he’s going to do. I could see on their faces that he was frustrating them and he really takes pride in the game. I think he’s playing MVP-style basketball and he’s our leader, and it shows. He led us to this victory.”
Indeed, Noah has emerged as a legitimate candidate to receive MVP consideration — no, he won’t win the award, but who else deserves more third-place votes behind James and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, the other front-runner, than Noah, besides perhaps Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge — with his remarkable play in the 2014 calendar year. While many observers cite his passing, which has made him a nightly triple-double threat, the fact that he’s a less reluctant scorer and even better leader is a major difference.
“That’s where he’s really growing. Like if they’re sitting on his passing, now he knows — he’s being more aggressive to the basket, so you have to play him honestly and it’s just basketball form there. Quick decisions, your instincts, keep moving, set a great screen, roll hard, get to the offensive board. When you do that, it makes the game easy for everybody, so sometimes, you have to give yourself up for your teammate and when you get a whole team doing that, good things will happen,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau explained.
“He just keeps getting better and better, so I think he’s growing as a leader, but the most important thing is what he’s doing on the floor because what he does makes all his teammates better.”