AUBURN HILLS, MICH. — His 30 points and 23 rebounds jump off of the stat sheet, but according to Joakim Noah, he didn’t do anything different in Friday night’s 108-104 win over the Pistons
, the 16th consecutive win in the storied rivalry for the Bulls, at The Palace at Auburn Hills.
Noah, with one of his mentors, retired former Piston and ex-Bull Ben Wallace watching courtside, set career-highs in both aforementioned categories — to go along with six assists and two blocked shots — had the most dominant game of his six NBA seasons.
“‘Body [Wallace’s nickname],’ that’s my vet and to have him there, that means a lot. I learned a lot from him and even though we lost a lot of games, we spent a lot of time together. That’s my big, and he was the guy that really taught me a lot, him and Brad Miller, Drew Gooden. Those are my vets, so shout-out to my vets,” an exhausted Noah said afterwards before revealing the postgame advice Wallace, a renowned rebounder and legendary defensive player gave him. “He said I should have more rebounds and more points. He said I should have had 35. He’s a hater. He’s a hater, but that’s why I love him. I’m a hater, too.
“It feels great to play well and to win. We’ve just got another one tomorrow, so can’t get too happy, even though it’s crazy to have numbers like that. But you know what? I’m happy we won and just got to move on,” he continued. “I knew I was missing a lot of tips in the beginning of the game. In some arenas, they count as rebounds. In some other arenas, they don’t. So I’m happy they counted.”
Noah might have shrugged off his remarkable outing, but his teammates and even Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t. They knew that they were witnessing something special.
“Played really well in every area: Defense, rebounding, scoring, passing, playmaking, mental toughness, digging down, got us out of a hole. Great all-around game,” Thibodeau said. “He was everywhere. It was a great all-around game, every facet of the game. His scores, his multiple-effort rebounds, his playmaking — he and Lu got going, some cutting-type action, two-man game — so he had a great rhythm going, played big minutes. Played hard every minute.”
Carlos Boozer, who wasn’t too shabby himself with 24 points — on identical shooting numbers to Noah, 12-of-19 from the floor — chimed in: “Unbelievable. I told him, ‘That’s some Shaq-type numbers,’ because we needed every rebound, we needed every point and he gave it to us. Jo’s one of those guys that always works hard. People don’t give him enough credit. He busts his butt every day to work on his game. People don’t understand how talented he really is because everybody thinks he’s just a defender, but he goes hard, man. He’s in the gym early working on his game, in the gym late working on his game. You guys come in after our practice is over, you see him going through his routine. He’s a hard worker, man. I know the numbers were astronomical tonight, but he’s been playing great really all season, to be quite frank.“
Luol Deng, who had a quietly effective, 16 points, six assists and five rebounds joked: “We did that on purpose. We were missing shots. I told him I’d miss a lot of shots, so he could get his rebounding up. I just didn’t know he was going to finish them.”
Then, turning seriously, Noah’s longtime teammate added: “Seriously though, he deserves it. Jo’s been playing well all season and a game like this just lets people know how hard he works. Tonight, he was rebounding every ball, his energy was unbelievable and probably the best game of his career. Actually, you know what? There’s some games where he played really well. It’s up there. The stats are just unbelievable in this game, but Jo just plays with a lot of energy.”
Perhaps more significant than Noah’s numbers was, as Boozer mentioned, the fact that he had those kind of statistics in a close game. The Bulls didn’t play their usual brand of defense at the outset, allowing the Pistons to have a 30-point opening period, then fell behind by 17 in the second quarter before Noah truly asserted his will on the contest.
“I just felt like just our energy was low from the start of the game. We’re playing a lot of games in a short amount of time, so it’s just human reaction when there’s not a lot of people in the stands to kind of put your guard down. But I think we regrouped pretty well and it was a hard-fought win,” the charismatic center said before referring specifically to the deficit the Bulls faced after, to paraphrase Thibodeau, digging a hole for themselves. “Oh, that was huge, huge, huge. I think we were down 17 and we got it down to five pretty fast, so that was definitely big for us. It gave us a lot of momentum.”
Kirk Hinrich added: “It’s huge. When you see a teammate going like that — you don’t want to be letting your teammates down anyway — but when you see a guy going like that, with that type of energy and playing with that kind of heart, you definitely don’t want to be not giving it your all, as well.”
Hinrich, now in his second stint with the Bulls, has seen Noah develop from a strictly energy player to an underrated offensive talent and arguably the most versatile center in the league.
“He plays with that kind of energy, activity. He’s much more talented than people give him credit for. He can handle, he can pass, he can score inside, he can drive guys, using his quickness and energy a lot of times, so I’m not surprised. He’s very capable of having big nights,” he explained. “Yeah, probably number-wise [it was the best game of Noah’s career], but the thing about Jo is his energy is there every night and he goes to the board every time, and when you do that and you’re as talented as he is, you’re bound to have some nights like this.”
Deng concurred: “He has a knack. A lot of people don’t think he’s good offensively, but he is. It might not look smooth, but that’s his game. His hook is different, his jump shot is different, his driving game is different for a big man — always drives away from the basket, but get those shots — it’s just his game. He just works hard and it’s still a long season, but he’s just got to keep it up.”
Even the perfection-driven Thibodeau couldn’t deny how much of an offensive force Noah is becoming.
“It’s in him. I think he’s got to continue to push himself. I think he can do a lot better than he’s doing right now,” the coach acknowledged. “He’s worked at his game, but there’s still things that I think he can get to that he hasn’t gotten to yet.”
As for Noah himself, he still sees himself as the same type of player, but he admitted that with all of the work he’s put into rounding out his game, he’s now worthy of consideration for more widespread recognition.
“To be honest with you, I don’t think that my game has changed that much. I’m just more comfortable knowing where I can be effective, how to get my hooks off and I’m feeling a lot more comfortable shooting the ball, too. So, I’m just more comfortable on the court and I work hard on my game,” he explained, before answering the inevitable follow-up question. “Do I want to be an All-Star? Yeah, I want to be an All-Star, but I try not to think about it or play to be an All-Star. I try to play for my teammates and try to affect winning. I think that when you start worrying about individual accolades, I think it takes away from team and this is a team game.”
Deng, who emphatically proclaimed him the best center in the Eastern Conference weeks ago, supported his good friend’s case, armed with the knowledge, as a first-time All-Star himself last season, that it sometimes takes a while for observers to notice contributions from players who don’t always put up gaudy scoring numbers: “I think he should. It’s up to the coaches, what they pick, but when you talk about us, I’m sure a lot of teams, when they scout us, they’re talking about Jo’s energy and how huge that is for our team, and keeping him off the boards. He’s just got to keep it up, stay consistent and after that, he can’t control that. That just happens.”
For now, however, Noah is only concerned about the immediate future.
“I’m happy we’re 2-0 [on the road trip] and it feels good to play well. That’s why you work hard on your game, is to play well and to help the team. Sometimes it’s your night and sometimes it isn’t,” he said. “As long as we look at the big picture — we have a big game coming up — and can’t get too high, can’t get too low, stay focused and get ready for the Knickerbockers.”
Tags: Tom Thibodeau
, Luol Deng
, Chicago Bulls
, Joakim Noah
, Kirk Hinrich
, carlos boozer