Bulls’ Noah putting his best foot forward


May 7

The night before the NBA Playoffs got underway, Bulls center Joakim Noah had serious doubts about whether or not he’d be able to play in the postseason.

Plagued by plantar fasciitis down the stretch, Noah rested for most of the final month of the regular season to alleviate the pain. When he returned to play limited minutes in the Bulls’ final two games, it was obvious he was still far from his best and hampered by the injury.

So as the Bulls prepared to face the Brooklyn Nets, Noah began coming to grips with a scenario in which his season could have been over.

Joakim Noah

“Every time we play them, it’s always a battle,” said Noah of facing the Heat. “Tough basketball. We feel like we could have played better [in Game 1]. They probably feel the same way. It’s going to be a great Game 2.”

“The night before the Brooklyn series, he said he didn’t think he was going to be able to play,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau on Tuesday.

What was once a game-by-game storyline with a constant watch on his time on the court has all but become a distant memory now, with Noah no longer even listed on the team’s injury report. And the timing couldn’t be better, as Noah recorded a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds in 39 minutes of action as the Bulls shocked the Miami Heat in the opening game of their second round series on Monday.

“He’s found something that works, he’s feeling a lot better, and obviously that’s huge for our team,” stated Thibodeau, who met reporters at the team hotel following a film session.

Thibodeau also said that both Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich are day-to-day with Game 2 on Wednesday in Miami. Deng has been dealing with ill effects following a spinal tap and though he’s not with the team, he is out of the hospital and improving, Thibodeau reported.

“He’s feeling a little better, but he’s going to be home probably for another day,” Thibodeau stated. “We haven’t decided yet [when Deng will join the team]. We’re trying to weigh whether it’s better for him to start doing activity back home.”

With or without Deng and Hinrich, Chicago proved once again that Thibodeau’s “more than enough to win with” mantra has never rang more true. But obviously, having a healthy Noah is a vital element of Chicago’s recent success.

In the Game 1 win over the Heat, specifically, the Bulls dominated the boards, finishing with a 46-32 advantage. Even starting small forward Jimmy Butler, who played his third consecutive 48 minute game, got into the act with a game-high 14 boards.

“The team that wins the rebounding battle has a big advantage,” said Noah. “If you look at the numbers the last 10 to 15 times we’ve played the Heat, the team that wins the rebounding battle usually comes out with a W.”

Thibodeau called rebounding a “critical” category for the Bulls in the series, hoping a collective effort will help counter Miami’s quickness to the ball and ability to thrive in transition. As for Noah, Thibodeau praised him for excelling on both ends of the floor.

“It’s not just his defense; we ask him to do a lot of things. But offensively what he does for us huge also,” said Thibodeau, citing second chance baskets and Noah’s ability to create from the middle of the floor.

“He adds a lot to winning,” said Thibodeau of Noah.

Noah’s ability to bounce back into full form when the Bulls need him the most is one of several compelling subplots for this team, which has faced more than its share of adversity. That’s why Thibodeau is quick to credit Noah for getting healthy after experiencing so much frustration during the second half of the season, soreness every time he stepped on the court.

“For him, timing is so important,” said Thibodeau. “When Jo is practicing well, he’s playing great. That’s the one thing I know. When he’s not practicing, his performance is up and down.

“The way he’s playing now says a lot about how hard he’s pushed himself,” Thibodeau continued. “But I think he can make another jump. He has a unique ability to impact the game in a lot of different ways with his passing and offensive rebounding. I think he’s gotten more comfortable with the ball scoring with his drives and post ups. His defense is terrific, both individual and team.”

Accolades will come with the individual success, such as being named to his first NBA All-Star team this season. Thibodeau believes that should Noah maintain his hunger and drive, he’ll continue to improve and could eventually win defensive player of the year honors. But that’s not what pushes Noah.

“The most important thing about him is he plays to win,” said Thibodeau of Noah. “You can’t undersell that. That’s huge. Jo can have five points, 10 rebounds and four blocks and have a great impact in the game. And he’s happy because we won. That’s the most important thing to him.”

Noah and the Bulls claimed a stunning victory in Game 1. With a day of recovery, as Noah put it, on Tuesday, they’ll go for another on Wednesday night before the series shifts to Chicago for Games 3 and 4. As both teams know, the games will continue to be competitive. And physical.

“Every time we play them, it’s always a battle,” said Noah. “Tough basketball. We feel like we could have played better [in Game 1]. They probably feel the same way. It’s going to be a great Game 2.”

Given Thibodeau’s remarkable attention to detail and preparedness, it’s safe to say the Bulls will be ready for the Heat’s best shot as they try to even their best of seven series. As for complacency on Chicago’s part after scoring a win away from home, don’t count on it.

“We’re not satisfied,” said Noah. “We’ve gotten some big victories the last couple games, but we’re not satisfied and we’re going to stay hungry, make our adjustments and try to play even better.”

Audio—Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau meets the media in Miami (05.07.2013):

Audio—Bulls center Joakim Noah on Chicago’s Game 1 victory (05.07.2013):

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