The Chicago Bulls just keep on rolling despite spending nearly the entire season dealing with significant injuries to their much-hyped front court. As if starting out the first 15 games of the season without prized free agent acquisition Carlos Boozer wasn’t enough, the long-awaited pairing of Boozer with incomparable centre Joakim Noah was short-lived after the latter fell out with a hand injury on December 15 not long after Boozer’s return to action. All the Bulls have done is continue to win despite the depletions by going 9-6 without Boozer and now 8-4 without Noah in the line up. Much of their ability to overcome is sourced from point guard Derrick Rose whose MVP campaign continues to fuel the Bulls with his near 25 points and eight assists per night. His star, combined with those of Boozer and Noah, is bright enough to blind the casual fan to the most seasoned Bull of them all and a man who is quietly having one of the best seasons of his career.
“You always try to have fun no matter what, you always work hard,” said seven-year veteran Luol Deng after a mid-December road win. Having spent his entire career in Chicago Deng has seen the good and the bad as the Bulls have stumbled their way back to respectability in the years since Michael Jordan left Chicago. “There’s times you work hard and it’s not fun ‘cause you go out there and you‘re playing so hard but you’re not on the same page as the group. Things like that can upset you. When you’re all on the same page you don’t want to be that guy that’s not working hard and letting everyone down. You don’t want to be that guy and that’s the group we have. We’re quick to get on each other and we’re holding each other accountable and it feels great. I have the last guy on the bench yelling at me and yelling at Derrick but it’s all good.”
Under former head coach Vinny Del Negro things were scattered for Deng and the Bulls last season. Management and coaching staff conflicts were real and had a trickle down affect on the team even as they squeezed into the playoffs on the last day of the season. Their first round playoff dumping was expected as was the firing of Del Negro shortly after. The hiring of Boston Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau was a return to roots of sorts for Deng who flourished under another strict disciplinarian in Scott Skiles a couple of seasons before. With more structure, role definition and talent to par with Deng is finding basketball more enjoyable these days and has a better appreciation of the connection between fun and winning. Is it enough to get the Bulls over the playoff hump and put them into elite team status?
“I think we’re getting there,” said Deng. “We had a good team when we went to the second round of the playoffs with Skiles. Right now basketball is fun, it’s fun for all of us. Everybody knows when you’re winning its so much easier to get up and go to the gym tomorrow and that’s how it should be. We said it from the start – our practices are so hard, our training camp was hard and it’s paying off. You’re not going to get anything rewarded in this league unless you earn it and I think we’re putting in the work for it.”
Deng’s work has been on full display. His 17.8 points per game has been steady and he has reached double-digit scoring in all but four games this season. When the Bulls were without Boozer in November Deng registered three games with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds and had four total double-doubles on in the month. His team-leading and career-high 39 minutes of burn a night (third highest in the NBA) is ironman work that hasn’t messed with his efficiency and only four other players have logged more total minutes this season. Add Deng’s prowess as one of the best defenders on a team that allows the second lowest opponent field goal shooting in the NBA and his worth glows, sharing some of the sparkling shine coming off of the outfit’s more celebrated names. For someone whose name has been bandied about for years on the player market his ability to remain above the talk is remarkable in an age where off-court news is too often muddled in with on-court play to many a player’s demise. Still, he is already anxious to get Noah’s unique brand of basketball back in the mix even though the centre isn’t expected back until March. At the same time, with the defence of reserve Taj Gibson and the veteran fill-in work of Kurt Thomas, Deng is confident the Bulls can keep up their head-turning pace and snag a top four playoff seating by the end of the regular season.
“We all understand having Jo we’re a better team but like I said, when he gets back we’ll be even better,” Deng said without flinching. “We gotta do the best we can, we don’t have him. That’s what it is. Guys are going to have to step up and it’s not one guy that’s going to get his job done. It’s going to be all of us as a group. We did it when Boozer was out.”
Maybe it’s because he has been in the front seat of the rolling coaster ride of the franchise’s rebuild why Deng has such an even approach to the success the Bulls are enjoying now. Maybe all those years of being on the trading block has made him thick enough to not worry about the uncontrollable. Maybe the confidence of being able to start the season strong without Boozer is more of a boost than the critics gave them credit for. Third place in the eastern conference behind powerhouses like the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat is nothing to sneeze at, particularly when it has been accomplished with two of Chi-town’s heaviest hitters on the sideline in suits.
“Man, I always try to take the positive out of everything,” said Deng. “Losing Jo is going to be tough, it’s going to be really tough. But you know, we missed Boozer, Derrick missed one game this year and we have guys in the locker room that are going to step up. They’ve done it for other teams and with the system we have we have guys playing together. We’re just going to have to collectively fill in his shoes.”
“I really feel like this is going to make us better. Jo’s going to come back hungrier than ever. We’re going to be fine.”
At his locker stall in the visitor’s locker room after a huge mid-April win in Toronto, Joakim Noah welcomes his mother with excited eyes and a soft kiss. He is the last Chicago Bull left, the rest having boarded the bus to take them to Pearson International airport. On this night Noah is taking his time leaving the building and it isn’t just because his mother and an accompanying friend have paid him a visit.
After a 19-rebound, 18-point and seven assist performance in a must-win game versus the Toronto Raptors for the final playoff seed in the eastern conference, the 6-11 center looks drained. He sits slightly slumped at his locker, a long sigh escaping his mouth while his legs stretch to their fullest in front of him. Despite the fatigue there is still a strong energy around Noah (2009/10: 10.7 PPG, 11 RPG, 1.56 BPG) as his night comes to an end, an undying zest that even now has him looking like he’d go out and do it all again if he had to, right then and there. His eyes betray his aching bones and are still lit when they signal for some straggling media to step up.
There was a time when questions surrounding Joakim Noah’s transition to the NBA went unanswered. Nobody was quite sure how the former Florida Gator’s unorthodox, balls-out style of play would fit in the pros or how much his awkward shooting style would hinder his game or if his carefree approach to life would sit well with the image-obsessed NBA. Nobody wanted to make a prediction, which meant they weren’t sure if he would be really good or really bad. “They” may have underestimated the power of positive energy Noah seems to espouse wherever he goes, especially on the court and usually when it matters most.
“I think that energy-wise, when you are playing in these important games, it’s just easier to get excited for them,” says Noah. The 25 year-old showed up for real on the NBA radar last April when his underdog Bulls pushed the defending champion Boston Celtics to seven games in their first-round series. Noah was arguably the team’s best player averaging 10.1 points while snagging 13.1 rebounds a game versus the Celtics, both huge improvements on his regular season numbers. Beyond the statistics his defense was stellar and allowed the Bulls take advantage of a Kevin Garnett-less C’s squad. Noah proved to the doubters that not much had changed since college.
“It’s either win or go home,” says Noah. “It’s those games that you have to have a certain edge about you.
“That’s definitely the way we’re supposed to play every night; desperate, very hungry and driven.”
As the star of the Florida Gators’ back-to-back NCAA titles, Noah knows how to win big. He doesn’t melt under the spotlight… he grows in it. In fact, he grew up in it after his famous tennis playing, French Open winning father Yannick Noah became a huge star in France and the sporting world. He is aware that fame is fleeting and that the glory years don’t last forever, lessons learned from watching and listening to the old man. The Bulls are a young team led by an emerging superstar in Derrick Rose with the promise of better times. After all, fighting for the right to play the mighty Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round could be considered akin to sprinting up ten flights of stairs for your own execution. Of course, that’s what they said about the Bulls last year when they drew Boston’s card. Another lesson learned.
“Mentally we have to cherish every moment”, explains Noah. “Live in the moment and understand that everything matters right now. We’ve got to really stay focused and get our rest at night. The only thing that should matter right now is winning ball games.”
It didn’t always seem that way this season for the Bulls. Head coach Vinny Del Negro was on the hot seat for most of the campaign and if not for a midseason turnaround that saved his job, the players might have been looking at new bench boss. Instead the axe dropped on them with forward Tyrus Thomas and guard/forward John Salmons shipped out to Charlotte and Milwaukee respectively, both playoff teams ahead of the Bulls. The incoming Hakim Warrick, Joe Alexander, Flip Murray and Acie Law didn’t exactly kick-start the withering Bulls and when Noah went down with plantar fasciitis of the left foot to end the month of February it left the club devastated.
Even though Noah had missed nine other games because of the nagging injury – giving the organization a heads up that complications could follow – there was simply nobody capable of stepping up in his place. After logging 27 minutes against the Portland Trailblazers on February 26 it was announced the borderline All-Star would be shut down. The Bulls chased that news by going on a 10-game losing streak that seriously soured their hopes for a postseason appearance. Upon Noah’s return the Bulls won 10 of their final14 contests and were one of the league’s best defensive squads over that span. He may be the biggest reason they were able to push themselves into the postseason on the final day of the season with a win over the Charlotte Bobcats.
The kid just keeps on coming and pacing himself isn’t in the plans, plantar fasciitis be damned.
“Not at all and not right now,” says Noah when asked if it is ever difficult to play on such high alert every game. “Maybe when it’s the beginning of the season. It’s a little bit harder because you’re playing so many games and you are traveling all the time. Right now it’s that time of year. It’s easy. I think everybody understands what’s at stake.”
Just how important has Noah become to the future of the franchise? With executive vice-president John Paxson and his management team micro-managing his minutes and Del Negro trying to squeeze his team into the playoff picture, the conflict over resting and playing Noah reached a boiling point two weeks ago when the two men reportedly got into a physical altercation over Del Negro’s insistence on playing Noah above the set limit imposed by Paxson and general manager Gar Foreman.
Bad stuff, and exactly the kind of drama Noah prefers to distance himself from. It is what helps him to float above his critics, complainers and competition. It is what has helped him come within a hair of being an All-Star this season. It is the reason why, following his virtuoso performance against the Raptors, his teammates welcomed him into the visitor’s locker room with a heavy round of applause.
It is what keeps him level enough to perform in the clutch, when the spotlight shines the brightest.
“Like my mom always says,” Noah continued, raising his voice so that his mother – who has already picked up on his verbal cue from across the locker room – can listen in. “Everything is based around energy.’”