Joakim Noah admitted that his near triple-double wasn’t deserving of being the legitimate feat in Thursday night’s 94-82 Bulls’ victory over the Celtics at the United Center.
The All-Star center finished with 17 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists, one dish shy of recording his fourth career triple-double. But toward the end of the contest, with the Bulls clearly heading toward an easy win, it became obvious that Noah’s teammates were gunning for him to get the achievement, something frowned upon when it doesn’t happen naturally, in the course of a game.
“I think probably, I don’t know, three minutes to go,” Noah said of when he learned that he was close to recording the triple-double. “It’s not really good to play basketball that way, where you’re focusing on your stats. It’s not that cool. But I tried to get it. Jimmy tried to force the shot at the end. It’s not a good look.”
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, however, refused to admit it was apparent that his players were trying to get Noah the honor.
“The end of the game, obviously we’ve got to do better and we were trying to run through him, too, because of the ball pressure,” the coach said, deflecting the question. “I was calling for what we were running. Now, we didn’t execute it. When they’re putting two on the ball in the backcourt, he’s very good at pushing the ball up and I don’t want to play slow there. I don’t want him to hold the ball where they can come and re-trap. He’s shown throughout his career that he can go and make a great play and get you the easy basket.”
But when asked directly whether he apologized to Celtics head coach Brad Stevens for the perception, accurate or not, that his team was playing for statistics, Thibodeau’s response was a bit more indignant.
“That was private, what [Stevens] said to me. [Boston] cut the lead at that point,” he said. “You guys [the media] have all that stuff. [Noah] was doing what he was asked to do.”
For Stevens’ part, the first-year NBA head coach claimed he didn’t take offense to the Bulls’ tactics, let alone was conscious of them.
“I wasn’t aware of it,” he said. “I’m probably one of the few coaches who doesn’t look at the stat sheet, except for halftime and after games.”
Maybe Stevens wasn’t in the know, but Noah’s teammates didn’t deny what was going on.
“I told him, ‘If I was in the game, I would have got it for him.’ I kept yelling at him, but in that instance, guys don’t really look into that stuff,” Taj Gibson said. “Once I told him he had it, that’s when he looked up at it and he realized how close he was. That’s when Kirk tried to get him for him. Lu tried to get it for him before Coach took him out. Jimmy messed it up.”
Dubious triple-double effort or not, the Bulls’ ball movement and overall unselfishness was admirable, as the team had 26 assists on the night.
“For where we are, the team has moved the ball all year. Now, we haven’t made shots the way we would like. So I think now, getting guys back, we can get into rhythm a little bit. There’s more depth,” Thibodeau explained. “The bench, I think they’re in pretty good rhythm. But we’re doing the same things. It’s just that we have more depth to go to.”
Mike Dunleavy Jr. added: “I think it’s a pretty unselfish team. Our assist total is always going to be high. We always try to make plays for each other and we always try to run stuff through Joakim, our big guys.”
Noah credits former teammate Brad Miller, a guest at the Bulls’ last home game, a New Year’s Eve loss to Toronto, for helping him develop his passing ability.
“I learned from Brad and I just feel comfortable making plays at the elbow,” Noah said.
Thibodeau chimed in: “We’ve always run a lot of the offense through him and that’s one of his strengths, and it makes it a little bit different because when you do hit him, he’s going to make you pay for body-position mistakes and it opens up the basket area, to get to more of a cutting game and he’s very unselfish.
“I like the way Joakim played.”