Basketball isn’t an individual sport, but it’s natural for observers to focus on one-on-one matchups, particularly when two players at the same position are considered the two best in the game, as in the case of All-Star centers Joakim Noah and Dwight Howard.
Noah’s Bulls beat Howard’s Rockets, 111-87, Thursday night at the United Center and while neither this game nor December’s Rockets’ win in Houston settles the debate about which player is the best center in the NBA this season, Noah has the upper hand after the most recent clash. Noah flirted with recording his fourth triple-double of the season, going for 13 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, while limiting Howard to 12 points, 10 rebounds and seven turnovers, though he also blocked four shots.
“I think it was a great team effort. A lot of guys coming down, helping on Dwight. I picked up some fouls. I think Booz did a great job on Dwight, as well,” Noah explained. “It’s a team effort against a guy like that. He can score in so many different ways and it was just a great effort.”
Noah clearly frustrated Howard, drawing offensive fouls on the stronger man, one of which led to a technical foul for arguing the call. It also helped that Houston’s other All-Star, shooting guard James Harden, didn’t get going, scoring just eight points on 2-for-7 shooting while guarded by Jimmy Butler.
“Well, it was a team effort. We knew it was going to be a challenge. Their team scores a lot of points, up and down. Dwight in the middle, shooters around him, Harden is as tough to guard as there is in the league and we’re happy we won,” Kirk Hinrich explained. “I thought we did a good job. We know it’s got to be a team effort. It’s such a challenge with the Harden-Howard pick-and-roll because Dwight’s such a force rolling to the rim, James is such a force attacking the basket, scoring the ball. So we feel like we did a good job. At the same time, they probably had a little bit of an off night, as well.”
Carlos Boozer added: ““Look, him and Jimmy had two tough matchups. Those two guys are great players and Jo got him frustrated early. Jimmy did the same thing to James. Those guys are great players, so for them to do that to them at this stage of the season was huge for us because it gave us a cushion, as far as making other guys take shots that aren’t used to taking shots. So that helped us a lot.”
Mike Dunleavy Jr. chimed in: “Everything starts with our defense. We did a pretty good job on those guys. Not letting them get to the free-throw line, not letting them get to the paint, get what they want to do, that was certainly a key.”
While Noah shied away from individual praise, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau was more than happy to praise his work.
“He was terrific. Terrific, all-around. Not any one particular area, just his all-around play. In every aspect of the game, from the defense, the transition, communication, pick-and-rolls, picking up smalls—because they’re coming at you fast, so sometimes you’re forced into switches; he handled that,” the coach said. “Then offensively, just great. Great decision-making, quick decisions. Thirty-five assists for us is terrific.”
[WATCH: Dunleavy Jr. takes elbow to the eye]
Taj Gibson put things in perspective, claiming that because Howard and Noah have such dissimilar games, there’s no need to compare them.
“I think there was never anything to be settled. I thought they’re two different players. They run two different offenses. Dwight is a power post. Joakim can post a little bit, shoot outside, dribble. Joakim has the whole package right now and his game’s only going to get better,” Gibson explained. “I just think Dwight does a lot for his team. They run a totally different offense from us. They run four guys out and one in the middle. We run power post with ‘C’ offense. It’s different, but those guys are both talented post men and I hope people got a good look at what it takes to play in the NBA because those guys are really down there banging.”
For Noah’s part, he doesn’t concern himself with his stature in comparisons to Howard, who he grew acquainted with when the pair were still youngsters in Central Florida: Howard as a prep-to-pros phenom with the Orlando Magic and Noah as a college star at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
“I’m not even worried about any of that,” he said. “We grew up together. I don’t know him too well, but I have great respect for him. He looks like he’s in a good place. He looks like he’s happy with the decision he made, going to Houston and I know that when Dwight’s healthy and happy, he’s a whole other player. So I’m happy for him.”