CLEVELAND — As outgoing as Joakim Noah is, getting him to talk about his positive play on the court can be difficult. The charismatic center will talk about his need for improvement, how his team can be playing better, praise his teammates and even offer up the occasional mildly controversial comment about an opponent, but rarely will he pat himself on the back.
Part of it is his obsession with winning and team-oriented nature, something that’s worked for him over the years, as evidenced by two college national titles at Florida and the Bulls’ progress during his NBA career mirroring his own. But after his 23-point outing in the team’s season-opening win over the Kings at the United Center, Noah downplayed his contributions, as well as his obviously growing role as a scorer.
“I think I played well,” Noah said, adding “probably not” when asked if he thought Wednesday’s output would become a normal occurrence. “I think I can do things offensively. Whatever’s asked of me. I feel like I can make plays for other people.
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau was a bit more expansive.
“Part of his evolution. Two years ago, he spent a lot of time in the gym, in the summer, and he got off to a great start, then got hurt, and then he was never the same that year. He sat out so much of that season, and then last year was the lockout summer. It’s more what he’s doing now," he explained. "He’s healthy and that’s big, and Andy Greer has done a great job with him. They’ve spent a lot of time watching film and that’s helped him come into practice more focused.
"I think he’s practicing as well as he’s ever practiced, and I think the one thing you learn about this league is the better you practice, the better you play, so he’s got to continue to do that. I think he’s gotten comfortable now in a number of different areas and I also think his experience, when he sees how teams are playing him and he knows where the openings are.
"He and Carlos have played very effectively together and the beauty of both Carlos and Joakim is the fact that if you hit them and you cut, and you’re open, they’re going to hit you with the pass, so I think the more we play through those guys, the better it is for us,” the coach continued. “The best leadership you could have is what a player’s actions are, so I think if you’re doing the right thing, that shows your teammates how serious you are about winning and your commitment to the team.
“Each year, he’s gotten significantly better about his approach to the game and I hope it never ends. I don’t think it will because I think that’s Jo’s nature. He works hard at his game, he studies and he’s getting better. To me, he’s put a lot of work into his conditioning. He’s been healthy, which is a big plus for him. He’s practicing a lot better this year, too. He’s putting a lot more time into film. He’s coming in ready to go. I thought he had a great preseason. He’s coming in trying to improve every day.
“The game dictates who’s going to get what scoring opportunities. If they’re over helping off of him, he knows he can make those shots. Very good 15 to 17-foot shooter. He’s very active on the offensive glass and he’s gotten a lot more comfortable with his post-up game. The thing that I really think he’s improved upon is his screening, so the better he screens, the more he’s open and that’s where he’s really a factor.”
Noah is far more celebrated for his uniqueness as a personality, but he also possesses a very different set of skills, from his relentless rebounding and active help defense to his unorthodox shooting motion, uncanny ballhandling ability for his size and subtleties like his court vision and the lateral quickness to switch out onto guards in pick-and-roll scenarios, as well as more recently, a higher comfort level playing with his back to the basket. Thibodeau appreciates the entire gamut of his center’s talents.
“The interesting thing is he was very unorthodox — still is — but I remember when I was in Boston, watching him shoot pregame and seeing him make consecutive shots, and the first time he did it, you think, ‘Okay, aberration,’ and then you’re watching him as he’s moving around and seeing that it’s not. The ending of his shot is actually pretty good and he’s got touch. He’s proven to be a very good free-throw shooter, so I felt confident that he’d be able to hit shots for us,” Thibodeau said. "[The coach trusts Noah as a dribbler and passer] a lot. He’s got great vision and decision-making ability.”
Noah is also an excellent complement to power forward Carlos Boozer, something that wasn’t always the case when the duo were initially paired together. But with superstar Derrick Rose sidelined, the big-man tandem will be relied upon to both score and create as passers, which they’re capable of, due to their much-improved chemistry on the court.
“We’ve been playing together for a while now and I kind of know where he wants the ball, he knows where I want the ball. We’re comfortable in Thibs’ offense and it’s good,” Noah said. “I think we’re moving the ball well and I feel like we can still play better. But when we’re moving the ball around, it’s a lot easier. You get the defense moving around like that, it’s a lot easier to get offensive rebounds and good things happen when the ball is hopping.”
Thibodeau chimed in: “Both of our bigs, he and Carlos, if we play through them in the post, and you cut and you’re open, you’re going to get the ball. That’s why it’s so important for us to play through those guys. For that matter, Rip’s the same way in catch and shoot, so often times, we’re going to play through him in the catch and shoot to get the ball into the paint also. But we have to play inside-out. That’s when we’re at our best.”
Hampered by injuries the past few seasons, Noah played heavy minutes Wednesday — a given with the offseason departure of Omer Asik; backup center Nazr Mohammed will likely play more of a Kurt Thomas veteran role in limited playing time, unless needed — and while he might not be a consistently gaudy scorer, if his health and consistency are there, as well as the Bulls winning, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see Noah make the All-Star team, something that he looked destined for two seasons ago, before getting hurt. Thibodeau indicated that Noah could again have a major workload Friday against the Cavaliers, who have a similar player in veteran Anderson Varejao, another member of the league’s all-hair club, not to mention a big-time rebounder coming off a nine-point, 23-board, nine assist game in Cleveland’s opener.
“He’s in shape, so we’re going to see how the game unfolds. I think his conditioning is great right now,” Thibodeau said. “He’s put a lot of time into it, he feels healthy and again, I think his passing adds a lot to our team.”
Tags: Tom Thibodeau
, Chicago Bulls
, Joakim Noah
, carlos boozer