Sam: Noah's return to form is Bulls missing link

Sam: Noah's return to form is Bulls missing link
April 12, 2011, 11:01 pm
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Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Posted: 5:30 p.m.
By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

NEW YORKThis was supposed a playoff preview. Before the Bulls blew away their Eastern Conference competition in the second half of the season, it was thought that the Knicks were a likely first-round opponent, even before the blockbuster trade-deadline deal that brought Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to the Big Apple.

Now, the game is meaningless on many frontsboth teams are locked into their respective postseason seedsand with All-Star forward Amare Stoudemire out for New York with a sprained left ankle, the biggest drama Tuesday night is whether the Bulls can continue to remain on the heels of San Antonio for the leagues top record and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Except for one player.

Back in his hometown, Bulls center Joakim Noah has been mired in a slump as of late. Some of it has been caused by his slow recovery from a sprained right ankle, coming on the heels of a 30-game absence due to thumb surgery. However, Noah is a player whos made his nameand a lucrative five-year, 60-million offseason contract extensionby being the consummate hustle player and lately, the joie de vivre of the fluent French speaker just hasnt been there.

I just have to do better. I just have to be more aggressive going to the board, said Noah after Mondays practice at Madison Square Garden, after which he worked individually with Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, something the pair did in the offseason at the Berto Center. Just try to get my rhythm back and Im working as hard as I can to get that back.

To get better and just be as ready as possible for the game, he continued. I know I need some extra work right now, so Im just working hard and Thibs just makes sure I get my drills in, what I need to do.

Thibodeau elaborated on what he believes will solve Noahs struggles.

Hes a great worker, so when hes able to practicehes gone a long time without contactso now, hes coming back and taking contact on. Theres a lot going on, but hes got the ability to overcome all that stuff and play extremely welland he willIm confident, explained Thibodeau, who described their post-practice work as trying to get a little extra work in to sharpen up some post moves.

Right before the ankle injury, I thought he really started to play well. I thought his timing was coming back, he was active and I think the time off with the ankleand its still a little bit swollenbut hes got to get through that and weve got to get him going because we know whats coming. So, the extra work, I think, is good and the one thing I know about Jo is when Jos practicing well, hes playing well. Thats the first step, to try to get his practices up to speed, where hes really playing well and feels good about his game.

You want to be playing your best basketball and you want to be healthy, and thats the challenge right now with Jo. Hes coming off injury and weve got to get him up to speed, in terms of having him feel healthy, but then, weve got to make sure we get his game up to speed also. Were moving in that direction, continued the former Knicks assistant coach. A big part of Noahs lack of timing is the amount of time that he missed. Jo has great timing and great hands. When you see him miss-time a jump or bobble a catch, thats not him and when hes at his best, if the balls near him, hes getting it, and hes real active with tip-ins. I thought he was getting there prior to the ankle injury. Theres nothing you can do about it; its misfortune.

Now, weve got to try to get him to do the extra work to get back up to speed, where hes high-energy. Two games ago, he was very good with the blocked shotshis timing was great on those; he had six blocks in a game in short minutesbut weve just got to get him going. It comes back to his practices. When he can practice well, hes going to play well. Hes already proven that. He practiced great at the start of the year, got off to a great start and then, he was out. When you miss half the season, thats a lot of time to miss. Now, youve got to get back up to speed. Youve got to put the extra work in. It starts with your practices. Once he starts feeling good about the practices, hell feel good about the games.

Still, Noahs intangibles are what have made him invaluable and while the Bulls in general play with tremendous heart on most nights, Noahs energetic spirit can be the difference in key matchups.

I dont want to rely on any one guy for just one thing; I want that to be a total team commitment. Often times, Jo is the guy who will come up the big hustle plays for ushitting the floor, going from one side of the rim to the other to chase down a rebound, taking a charge, blocking a shotand those things help inspire your teammates. When you have a big hustle play, those are the types of things that get your team going and those are his strengths. When hes at his best, hes as good as anybody, said Thibodeau. Thats what we need. We need his energy, we need his rebounding, we need his defense, we need his hustle plays. Thats what makes him who he is and thats what makes us a good team.

Additionally, the Bulls season-long ownership of the backboards has been waning recently. If Noah can regain the form that made him one of the leagues elite rebounders, that will make their hopes of an extended playoff run that much more realistic, although Thibodeau insists that only a group effort will result in improvement.

For us, its such a big part of what we dodefend and rebound, so we can get out into the open floor. It is one of our strengths. Weve been a dominant rebounding team all season long and we do it really with gang rebounding. Of course, Jo, hes the best at it when hes healthy, so weve got to get him healthy. And Carlos is a great rebounder. Omer and TajTaj has been doing a great joband Lu gets in there. Were trying to get Ronnie and Derrick and Keith in there a little bit more. When our guards are rebounding, thats when were dominant, said Thibodeau, who added that Noahs ability to run the floor allows us to play with more pace.

Thats the strength of our club; we have the five bigs up front and throughout the course of the season, weve had to navigate with one guy being down, so we feel comfortable that we can do it, but obviously wed prefer to have all our bigs because really thats where the strength of the club lies, in terms of our defense and rebounding. Jo has provenif hes right14 and 12 rebounds, and two or three blocks, and great energy.

Thats Noah running the floor in transition what allows us to play with more pace.

Regardless of how it manifests itself, its obvious that Noah must get on the same page as both his coach and serious-minded teammatesand soonfor the Bulls to head into the postseason with the right mentality.

Its going to take him a lot of work, observed All-Star point guard Derrick Rose about his free-spirited teammate. He was running after practice, getting his conditioning back and hes been resting, even though hes in his city.

Theres no time like the present for Noah to get back into the swing of things, with the added motivation of playing in his hometown.

Playing here is unbelievable for me. I remember being a little kid, coming in and sitting all the way up top, watching games. I saw Larry Johnson hit that four-point play. I was in here when Michael Jordan came back, reflected Noah, who didnt participate in the Bulls Christmas Day loss in New York due to injury. I was in this building a lot growing up and just being able to come here was always the best gift you could ever give me, so being able to play in this environment and playing with the Bulls, its something thats unbelievable.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.