MIAMI—Looking back what might now be regarded as the signature performance of Joakim Noah’s career -- a 24-point, 14-rebound and career-high six-blocked shot outing in the Bulls’ Game 7 first-round win in Brooklyn -- sidelined teammate Derrick Rose marveled.
“He put the work in. He’s a warrior, where everybody was following him. He normally doesn’t score the ball. But he went out there and did what he had to do to win the game,” the former league MVP observed. “He controlled the game, I thought.”
Noah put up typical, but far less gaudy numbers in Monday’s Game 1 Eastern Conference semifinals victory over the Heat.
[MORE: Late game heroics push Bulls to Game 1 victory]
The All-Star center still made a huge imprint on the contest, however, as his 13 points, 11 rebounds and four assists belied his effort level and how he set the tone for the upset, even matching up with league MVP LeBron James on both ends of the floor down the stretch.
[RELATED: Joakim Noah ‘extinguishes’ LeBron James]
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau isn’t surprised at what Noah’s been doing and sees it as a continuation of Noah’s development.
“He’s done a good job of getting himself healthy. The second half of the season, he dealt with a lot of frustration. It was the soreness of anytime he played the game. For him, timing is so important. When Jo is practicing well, he’s playing great. When he’s not practicing, his performance is up and down. He got off to a great start this year. The way he’s playing now says a lot about how hard he has pushed himself,” Thibodeau said.
“He can make another big jump. He has the unique ability to impact the game a lot of different ways, with his passing and offensive rebounding. I think he’s gotten more comfortable with the ball scoring with his drives and post-ups. His defense is terrific, both individual and team. He’s a huge part of the team,” Thibodeau explained. “He anchors the defense. I hope he continues to improve until the last year he plays in the league. I want him to have that approach. I want him to remain hungry. I think there is a lot of room.
“That being said, he’s an All-Star now. If he keeps working at it, I see him as Defensive Player of the Year. But the most important thing about him is he plays to win. You can’t undersell that. That’s huge. Jo can have five points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and have great impact in the game and he’s happy because we won. That’s the most important thing to him.”
Noah’s unique talents and winning mentality aside, maybe the most impressive aspect of his play has been his agility, always a staple of his game, but something that was in doubt when the postseason started, as he was severely hobbled because of his ongoing bout with plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
“I feel good. I've been doing a lot of treatment. I just feel like, for some reason, the more time goes by, the better my foot feels,” said Noah, whose doctor on the French national team came to Chicago to assist with his recovery efforts. “I'm still doing all the treatments and doing everything I can to get back to 100 percent. It's feeling pretty good.
“Compared to where it was 10 days ago, it's not even comparable. It's almost a non-factor at this point,” he continued. “I feel very luck and I feel really blessed. I seriously felt the day before the playoffs that I wasn't going to be able to play. And to be able to play on this stage, in front of my family, my friends, everybody, it's something I'm not going to take none of this for granted. Because I know how down I was two weeks ago.”
Thibodeau added: “It’s huge. I don’t know what it is. It’s probably good fortune. Before the Brooklyn series, he missed a good chunk of the second half of the season. The night before the Brooklyn series, he said he didn’t think he was going to be able to play. He has found something that works. He’s feeling a lot better. And obviously, that’s huge for our team. It’s not just his defense. We ask him to do a lot of things. He’s involved in every aspect of it, from defensive transition, pick-and-roll defense, catch-and-shoot, low-post, be everywhere, give multiple effort, rebound the ball, outlet the ball, run the floor. But offensively, what he does is huge for us also. The second shot, the playmaking ability from the middle of the floor. He adds a lot to winning.”