Late in the fourth quarter, Pau Gasol decided to take over Monday’s tilt with the Bulls. Trailing 85-84 with just under 4 minutes to play, the Lakers center scored six straight points on a jump shot, two layups and an array of post moves that gave his team a 90-87 lead with 2:12 to play.
Against most defenses and most NBA centers, Gasol’s night would have ended with another bucket or two and a win. But with Joakim Noah playing as well as he has the past two months, the Bulls are just any defense, and Noah is anything but most centers.
From the 2:12 mark to the end of overtime, capped by a Taj Gibson buzzer-beater with nine-tenths of a second remaining, Gasol was shut down by Noah in one of the Bulls center’s best defensive performances to date.
In that span, Gasol made just 1 of 5 field goals and turned the ball over three times, all while Noah was playing with five fouls, the last of which he picked up with 3:25 left in the extra period.
“Gasol’s such a tough matchup, and then of course they spread you out with their shooting. And you’re asking Jo, because of (Nick) Young and what he’s doing out there, Jo’s doing a lot of different things,” Tom Thibodeau said. “Gasol’s very clever down there. He can shoot with both hands, spin off the dribble, back you in, he’s got good touch, and so Jo battled the whole game. You can’t say enough about what he’s doing for our team.”
The raw numbers are impressive: in 42 minutes, Noah scored 17 points, grabbed 21 rebounds, handed out six assists and grabbed two steals. Though he didn’t record a block for just the second time this month, his interior defense was crucial to a Bulls defense that allowed just 38 points in the paint.
But more so than just the box score, Noah’s ability to defend one of the best, most versatile post players in the league with five fouls stands out even more.
Gasol said he wasn’t trying specifically to foul out Noah once he was called for his fifth foul, but Gasol’s intensified aggressiveness was apparent as he forcefully backed down Noah, trying any way he could do draw a foul or get by the Bulls’ top defender.
“I wasn’t trying to foul him out. I was trying to be successful and make plays. And the referees didn’t see or feel like he deserved to get the sixth foul,” Gasol said after the game. “He plays hard, he’s a guy who’s very active and is a good anchor for his team. He had a good night, I had a pretty good night but they won, that’s what matters at the end of the game.”
Added Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni: “We tried to go into Pau, and Noah did a heck of a job. He had five fouls on him, and he stayed in there and battled.”
Noah didn’t shut down Gasol, who finished with 20 points, 19 rebounds and five blocks in 37 hard-earned minutes. Few, if any, centers in the league can. But when it came down to crunch time, Noah was at his best and didn’t let his emotions overcome him, something which easily could have happened after he fouled Nick Young on a 3-pointer with 4.1 seconds remaining in regulation.
Young made all three free throws to send the game to overtime, one possession after Noah had missed a free throw that would have iced the game.
And ever the perfectionist, Noah wanted to focus more on the Bulls’ defense as a whole rather than his late-game stops.
“I think we’re playing pretty well right now. We just have to keep getting better, keep grinding,” Noah said. “I think there’s a lot of potential for this team to get better, especially defensively. I think our offense is pretty good. We’ve just got to play better defense.”
Noah may not have been pleased with the unit as a whole, but D’Antoni saw in the Bulls a team that’s going to compete and make life hell for opposing forwards and centers. That’s what happened Monday night down the stretch, and the result was a Bulls victory and a .500 record for the first time since November.
“They’re very gritty and they’ve got some good players,” D’Antoni said. “Their inside defense is good, they do a heck of a job. But Noah, he controls the paint, and that’s important.”