Thomas and Noah–yes they can!


Dec 14

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors.

I know I’m missing a lot of the audience with my 60’s and 70’s references, but I’m also teaching. So sometimes when I think of Tyrus Thomas I think of the great folk rocker Neil Young, who sang “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.”

Tyrus is a heart breaker because of games like Saturday’s when the Bulls defeated the New Jersey Nets 113-104.

It’s games like that when you just fall in love with what Thomas can do and be. Same with Joakim Noah, the two X factors in this season of Why and What the Bulls are going to do and become.

Because of the way Thomas, especially, flies around the court when he is engaged and dunks and blocks shots, scoring 16 points with two blocks, scoring on a pair of lob dunks from Larry Hughes and another from Ben Gordon, keeping several balls alive including a block and a rebound in one crucial fourth quarter sequence that led to a Luol Deng layup to put the Bulls ahead 91-88 with five minutes left, picking off a Devin Harris pass with the Bulls hanging onto a six point lead with 39.9 seconds left and running out an fouled, converting both free throws, then following a Vince Carter driving basket with another runout for a dunk, effectively clinching the win to bring the Bulls to 11-12 on the season.

“I try to come out and play hard every night,” says Thomas, who we know doesn’t always seem to and then doesn’t always get the chance when he doesn’t seem to be doing much. “Sometimes it doesn’t always go your way and I have a tendency to get frustrated and let it bother me. But we all played well tonight.”

Noah as well, who Saturday chipped in with seven points, eight rebounds and three blocks, showing the activity of his promise, if not his actions that often.

Noah had a terrific stretch to open the second quarter after the Bulls had fallen behind by 15 in the first quarter on a Carter onslaught.

Noah got an offensive rebound, but Derrick Rose missed a three. Then after a Nets miss, Noah got the ball and scored on a bank shot running across the lane, finally making a hard move to the basket. Noah then spun the ball out for a Hughes jumper and then beat the defense upcourt again and dunked on a Ben Gordon pass.

“For them to do that, we could be really good,” said Rose, who had 22 points, six rebounds and six assists and a big three to tie the game at 96 with just over three minutes left. “We can compete against some of the best teams in the NBA if they do that. They’ve just got to stay consistent.”

If only….

Ah, but there’s the rub.

This is what the Bulls envisioned when they made the picks of the jumping jack Thomas and the relentless Noah. They saw it, Thomas with that Amare Stoudemire athleticism and a decent shooting stroke, just a raw kid who hadn’t played many years. And Noah, the energizer who practically beat UCLA alone in one of those Florida title games, the poof haired flake who ran and ran and ran and never stopped competing.

Just imagine putting them with Ben Gordon, who had 29 points, Deng, who was quiet with 11 while trying to fight off Carter’s massive 39 points and Rose. OK, maybe no classic post play, but it’s not essential, not as long as the ball swings inside and there is penetration. It can be from guards, and Rose penetrates as well as any of them.

And then how many big guys were going to run with the engine who was Noah or quick jump with Thomas, who doesn’t need to gather himself to leap, but just rises. He’s got a better shot than Tyson Chandler, and if Tyson can become something by just diving to the basket and jumping, why not Thomas?

“Their energy, their length, their young legs,” offered coach Vinny Del Negro. “When they have games like this, no question they are difference makers. They can help you win a game and that’s what they did tonight.

“Some nights it comes real easy and some nights it doesn’t,” said Del Negro. “When it doesn’t, as you get mature you have to find ways to make yourself effective. That’s when you become a real pro. But it takes awhile. It takes some guys longer than others.”

Yes, that is the test of being a pro.

Everyone is in the NBA because they are good.

Yes, Josh Boone, too, though you’d hardly know it watching the Nets bench stumble around, five of 20 overall for 12 points as the Bulls got 37 off the bench.

Carter, coming off a career worst zero for 13 shooting against Toronto Friday, was brilliant and Devin Harris added 22, though was thwarted shooting and was just six of 18 and melted down late with a technical foul with 1:10 left and the Bulls ahead by five when he failed to get a foul call on a drive. Brook Lopez is going to be an excellent center, and it’s surprising he played just 33 minutes as he was cruising inside early and ended with 17 points on eight of 14 shooting and seven rebounds. The rest of the players are mostly forgettable, though the Nets are hanging in with an 11-11 record.

They looked like they were going to dominate the Bulls early as Carter came out firing, dunking on the opening possession and quickly adding a layup and a three as the Nets bolted ahead 23-8.

“You knew he was going to come out and look to be aggressive and that’s exactly what he did,” said Gordon. “He had a great game, but fortunately we had a balanced enough attack to kind of stymie whatever he was able to do.”

The Bulls had to start Deng on Carter because Gordon is too small at shooting guard to defend the biggers twos like Carter. So Gordon took Bobby Simmons, who mostly stands by the three point line shooting, and Simmons did hit an early pair of threes and ended with 12.

The Nets also tried something different, which they could do with such a dynamic backcourt, the leading in scoring in the NBA.

Because Carter can handle the ball as well, the Nets used Harris as the screener, putting Rose in position behind Harris and having to switch onto Carter, who was too big for Rose. It opened the court early for Carter to drive easily or pass out to teammates left alone as the Bulls tried to rotate in to help, not something they are adept at, especially with Rose in that unfamiliar position.

But the Bulls made a nice adjustment after the Nets went to their ineffective bench and had the big guys trapping on Carter or Harris as they tried to come off and stringing out the play and recovering.

It enabled the Bulls with some zone mixed in to hold the Nets to 32 percent shooting after halftime.

The Bulls trailed at halftime 60-50 after Carter put in a shot from halfcourt and Thomas had apparently gotten elbowed in the head just before that and left the game, his return in doubt.

Thomas had been last off the bench in the first half and had played just 12 minutes combined in the previous three games after he and Noah drew mild rebukes from Del Negro for their relatively uninspired play.

Though Del Negro joked after the game he would bottle the method if he knew how to read players as they responded better, perhaps they did sit up and get the message.

“I wish I was that smart,” Del Negro laughed.

The Nets stretched their edge back to 11 early in the third as Carter hit inside again with Hughes taking a turn on him as well and Carter doing a good job of splitting the Bulls traps before they tried some zone again.

Gordon and Rose hit a pair of shots each as the third quarter closed with the Nets ahead 80-75.

And though the Bulls would not pull away until the last two minutes, the spirit clearly was moving them on this night.

Thomas ran out on Boone and took a lob from Hughes early in the fourth after Noah snuck inside for a tip in and foul and fist pumping three point play.

“When those guys play with a lot of energy we are a different team,” said Deng.

There was a wonderful possession with six minutes left when Thomas blocked Lopez, Rose rebounded and missed, then missed a tip follow, then Drew Gooden rebounded and missed, Thomas missed a tip in and Deng picked up the loose ball and put it in.

“Everybody played with a lot of energy,” said Thomas. “It (becomes) a contagious type of thing.”

After that Rose three to tie at 96, Yi Jianlian, a woeful one of eight, missed a three, but Gordon didn’t for a 99-96 lead with 2:46 left.

“Getting down to the moment of truth,” said Nets coach Lawrence Frank, “Rose hit the three. You can live with that. But then Ben Gordon in the left corner three was a little bit back breaking.”

It was Gordon actually also making the pass for Rose’s three.

Carter drove and was fouled and made the free throws, but then Gordon again made another play with the ball, his sixth assist, going inside and hitting a slashing Deng for a slam.

“A couple of plays before, I was kind of standing there and felt I could cut because the defender wasn’t watching me,” said Deng. “The same thing happened and this time I cut.”

So you say, “About time.”

But the Bulls offense is different this time and seems to have hurt Deng the most. Deng is supposed to anchor in the corner to leave the middle open, which has taken away a lot from his game. With the defense sagging on Gordon, he left his spot when he saw the opening to give the Bulls the 101-98 lead with 2:09 left.

With his big contract signed in the offseason and having to matchup against more athletic forwards and take the big guards like Carter because the Bulls are playing so small in the backcourt, Deng has come under more scrutiny this season. But it’s been a learning process for a lot of players.

Carter then lofted a high arcing three that missed and Rose flew by Harris—possibly his biggest competition for one of the final spots in the East All-Star team this season&mdashfor a lay-in and five point lead with 1:23 left. Harris then drew the technical and it was over.

Over but the shouting about Thomas and Noah.

Like why can’t they play like this more often. It just breaks our hearts to know they can. It’s in there. Somewhere.

“I worked too hard this summer to beat myself up or lose confidence in myself,” said Thomas. “I’m always tough on myself. I think I’m my worst critic some of the time (not according to some of my mail). I know what I’m capable of doing. My confidence level right now is not as high as it needs to be or is going to be by the time I finish my career. I feel like I’ve showed a good bit of what I can do.”

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