Noah’s arc has been downward


Apr 11

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It was after a long practice Monday afternoon in Madison Square Garden, the world’s smelliest, most rotten and decrepit arena. Just about all the Bulls players sat along the perimeter of the floor, chatting, getting some treatment and generally waiting for the class in Basketball Jo to conclude.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau threw Joakim Noah passes and Noah made moves, spins to the basket, drives. He pantomimed grabbing rebound and finishing. It went on for 10, 15 minutes as players and reporters watched. Media is not permitted to watch practices, but practice had concluded. This was something of special tutoring session for a very important student.

It’s not something Thibodeau personally does often, and rarely with other players, though he did work with Noah much of the summer. But Thibodeau does generally make a practice of working with if not always the most famous player, at least the most important, like he did in Boston with Kevin Garnett, in Houston with Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, in New York with Patrick Ewing.

“Just trying to get in a little extra work, to sharpen up some post moves,” said Thibodeau. “He was very lively today. I think his ankle is feeling better. We’ve got to get him going. Right before the ankle injury (missing three games March 30 through April 2), I thought he was starting to play well. It’s tough coming back. It’s still a little bit swollen. He’s got to get through that.

“We’ve got to get him going,” said Thibodeau, “because we know what’s coming.”

Which is as close as Thibodeau came to acknowledging the Bulls were in the playoffs. I brought up the Pacers and Thibodeau immediately said all he is focused on is Tuesday’s game against the Knicks, who clinched the sixth spot Monday and a first round matchup with Boston. So at least Amar’e Stoudemire is unlikely to play.

I assured Thibodeau the Bulls first round opponent, Indiana, is set, and he did say he’d heard that.

He, of course, wouldn’t talk about them, though in mentioning knowing what’s coming regarding Noah we can note the Pacers have big Roy Hibbert at center and the potential second round matchup, assuming the Bulls get there, is Dwight Howard or perhaps Al Horford. Noah won’t get a chance to play power forwards because the Pacers play an outside shooting four in Tyler Hansbrough, the Hawks in Josh Smith and the Magic perhaps in Ryan Anderson given how well he played against the Bulls in Sunday’s 102-99 Bulls win.

“The big thing is you want to be playing your best basketball gong into the playoffs and being healthy,” said Thibodeau, neither of which Noah seems to be at this time. “That’s the challenge with Jo. Coming off injury, he’s got to get up to get his game up to speed and we’re moving in that direction.

“A big part is the amount of time he missed (with a fractured thumb, more than two months),” said Thibodeau. “When you miss that much time you can miss time a jump or bobble a catch, and that’s not him. When he’s at his best he gets every ball he’s near, he’s active with tipins.

“I thought he was getting better prior to the ankle,” said Thibodeau. “Nothing you can do about that. Misfortune. Now you have to do the extra work to get back up to speed.”

So the Bulls have decided as an organization and staff on work opposed to rest. And the team has cruised along to 60 wins and the top playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. So Noah’s slow return and sitting out the fourth quarters basically since have gone somewhat unnoticed.

But don’t be fooled. The Bulls are concerned because they know they need Noah, and not the Noah they’ve seen of late, or, frankly, even the one they mostly have seen since his return from surgery after the All-Star break.

Noah simply hasn’t been the same player who was headed for the All-Star team and off that big contract extension and untouchable in any talks for Carmelo Anthony.

Here’s a look at Noah’s season:

October: 16.5 points and 18 rebounds. But just two games.

November: 15 points and 12.5 rebounds in 13 games.

December: 11.4 points and 9.4 rebounds playing with the thumb injury he got in late November and would soon require surgery. He played nine games.

February: 10.3 points and 13 rebounds in four games.

March: 9.4 points and 9.3 rebounds. And that was in 14 games before his ankle sprain. So he wasn’t putting up those big numbers.

April:  7.3 points and 5.5 rebounds in four games.

Gone are those huge rebounding games we’d become accustomed to last season, 17’s and 18’s seemingly almost every other game. But in March Noah had five points and four rebounds in 32 minutes against Memphis, eight points and seven rebounds in 25 minutes against Atlanta. He had 17 points in that overtime loss to the Pacers, but just three rebounds. He had two points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes against Orlando in early March. He had zero points and 11 rebounds in 30 minutes in another game against Atlanta and five points and 10 rebounds in 30 minutes against the Nets.

And suddenly the Bulls haven’t been so dominant on the boards, one of their main strengths this season, though they have only fallen to second overall in rebounding.

They have outrebounded their opponents in nine of the last 13 games, but generally not by substantial margins and just by an average of three per game the last six games. But in second chance points, the Bulls have been outscored six of the last nine games.

And everyone knows the pivotal factor in all this is Noah. Sure, the Bulls have been winning, but as Pat Riley famously said, rebounds equal rings, and for those rebounds the Bulls need Noah.

Since coming back from his sprained ankle in March, Carlos Boozer has had double figure rebounding games in five of the last 12. Taj Gibson has come on and led the Bulls in rebounding in Orlando Sunday, and in the playoffs I suspect we’ll see more of Kurt Thomas for his interior defensive play.

But Thibodeau knows the Bulls need Noah for his rebounding and energy and the scoring that’s dropped off as well.

So Tuesday is a test as well, even if there is nothing to be gained. But there’s a lot for Noah, and he does love playing back home where he rooted for his Knicks as a kid.

“For us, he’s such a big part of what we do,” agreed Thibodeau. “Defending and rebounding gets us into the open floor. We’ve been a dominant rebounding team all season long. It’s been one of our strengths and Jo is the best at it when he’s healthy. We’ve got to get him healthy.

“Carlos, Omer (Asik), Taj have been doing a great job,” said Thibodeau. “We’re trying to get Ronnie (Brewer), Keith (Bogans) and Derrick (Rose) in there. When the guards also do the rebounding that’s when we’re dominant. Over the course of the season we’ve navigated with one down (Boozer or Noah). But we prefer to have all the bigs. That’s been our strength. When Jo is right there’s 14 points and 12 rebounds and two or three blocks and great energy.

“We need his rebounding, his blocks, his energy on defense, hustle plays,” said Thibodeau. “That’s what makes him what he is and makes us such a good team.”

So these last games will be more important than anything regarding the standings.

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