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Bulls get fifth straight with win over Charlotte
by Sam Smith
Posted on Jan 12
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Joakim Noah’s play is an eloquent testimony to his game, and it was once again Saturday as Noah’s 13 fourth quarter points saved the Bulls from blowing a double digit lead and led the Bulls to their fifth consecutive win and eighth in the last 10 with a 103-97 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats.
“Big baskets, big rebounds, blocks. (Noah) had a great game, great energy throughout,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.
And Noah speaks even more impressively in the locker room. His impassioned postgame soliloquy on the state of the team and the trade of good friend and teammate Luol Deng, which quieted him the last week, was perhaps the most beautiful and eloquent I’ve ever heard from an athlete. His paean to the fans of the game and the city was both lyrical and poetic in its simplicity and meaning. You wanted both to jump up and follow the guy anywhere or hug him.
Sitting bundled up as he often does in the steamy locker room in a Bulls sweatshirt and grey stocking cap, Noah evoked the themes of disappointment, determination, loyalty, responsibility and obligation in both somber and moving terms.
Noah had, of course, heard all the talk in the community that the team was giving up with the trade of Deng, which he admitted he’ll never understand and cannot support. That it was time to “tank” the season for a draft pick.
Not once; not ever.
Noah said he wasn’t angry with management because they were doing their job; it just isn’t his job. But he hardly was sacrificing the season and his goals were the same as always, to get to the playoffs and make his team known, have everyone understand, as always, when you play the Chicago Bulls you are playing a special team. But Noah explained it’s much more than just for himself or for rings or banners or accolades.
It’s, as he likes to say, about “representing,” about standing for something and someone and bringing everyone along for the ride.
“I feel when I come to the game and see the guys selling newspapers on the street; it’s cold outside,” Noah said. “He sees me driving and he’s excited. He’s like, ‘Let’s go Bulls. Get it done tonight.’ I feel I play for that guy.
“I look in the arena when the team calls a timeout and see this guy who looks this big jump up and down (in the upper deck, 300 level). That’s the guy I play for,” reiterated Noah. “To me, that’s what this city represents, a lot of hardship, adversity. I feel like when I play basketball I want people to be part of their team.”
It’s as succinct and powerful a statement of what pro sports ought to be about as perhaps anyone has articulated. You’re privileged to play these games you grew up loving as a kid. But you do so for the ones who wanted to just as badly but never could or would get the chance. They are with you more than most anyone knows, from their personal passion to superstitions to their own commitment.
Noah may represent it more than most, which maybe is why he speaks it the best. He doesn’t look like he should be a great athlete. He hardly has the requisite skills. He does it with the working man’s ethic of punching in and being there.
Noah especially was Saturday. It was an excellent all around effort with seven Bulls players scoring in double figures and Noah with 19 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and three blocks among three players with double-doubles.
D.J. Augustin came in for a foul plagued Kirk Hinrich, who still had 12 points, to direct the team with 20 points and 12 assists. Carlos Boozer had 12 points and 10 rebounds and Taj Gibson had 12 points, eight rebounds, three blocks and some booming dunks. Mike Dunleavy continued to be the team’s ace marksman with 17 points as Jimmy Butler sat out with a thigh injury from Friday’s win in Milwaukee. Rookie Tony Snell started for him. But 10-day contract addition Cartier Martin in his first playing time with the team had 11 points, making both his threes and four of five shots overall.
The Bulls moved the ball swiftly with 26 assists on 38 field goals. They pounded the better Bobcats on the boards and had a whopping 23-7 edge in second chance points. But they were about to blow a 15-point third quarter lead when the Bobcats took a 73-72 lead early in the fourth quarter.
The Bulls then went on an 11-0 run with Noah’s hand, finger and thumb prints all over it, starting with a slam dunk of a Augustin drive and pass, a high banking driving shot of the kind you would be yelling, “No, no, no,” if it were anyone but Noah, Noah taking an interior pass from Augustin and finishing for a three-point play.
That gave the Bulls an 83-73 lead with 7:40 remaining.
But no game ever is safe with this offensively challenged Bulls team. And even in the last minute they would nervously see a nine-point lead shrink to four. Scoring can disappear for these Bulls, now 17-18, like some vanishing coin trick.
But Noah would be there with the solution at every crucial moment, a rebound of a Hinrich miss when the Bobcats got within 85-78 and giving to Augustin for a driving score; a pair of free throws to match those of Gerald Henderson; an elbow jumper after a Henderson miss and then the effective clincher when with the Bobcats hanging in down 91-82 with 2:40 left, Noah denied Henderson at the rim with the block on a fast break leading to an Augustin three for a 12-point edge.
Noah also kept Al Jefferson, who finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds, quiet for most of the game in refusing to go for his variety of pump fakes. The Bobcats only came back in the third quarter with a three-guard lineup led by Henderson with 30 points and Kemba Walker with 29. But Thibodeau countered in the fourth with Hinrich and Augustin, a dose of Martin and a large serving of Noah.
It makes you wonder just what this Bulls team can do.
They’ve lost Derrick Rose for the season and now Deng in trade, their two leading scorers. They replaced them with Augustin, released by the Toronto Raptors, and veteran journeyman Martin. Yet, they’ve equaled their longest winning streak of the season and now are fifth in the weak Eastern Conference. Noah made clear he doesn’t support losing Deng as the team did for future considerations. But he also made clear he expects no less of himself and the team. Because this is more than a game; it’s a promise.
And there’s a lesson in life to all of this. Life delivers its share of unfair bounces and turnovers and bad calls. But you don’t submit. You come back even stronger because you represent more than yourself. You owe it to those who care about you and support you. You owe it to those who are gone and those who will follow.
With a player like that, you can let yourself believe.
“The trade definitely hurt,” Noah began. “A lot of people say this is a business and all that. This game is more than a business to me. I put everything I got into this. I feel Lu was the same way. So it was hard for me to digest. That’s just my perspective, my side of the story.
“Everyone has a different job,” Noah went on. “I’m not mad at anybody. I’m not mad at the organization or anything like that. Just my brother isn’t here anymore. I just needed a little bit of time to digest that. It’s hard to say at the end of the day that’s my brother and he’s not here anymore and that’s the way I see it.
“They (management) see the game differently,” explained Noah. They’re not out there on the court, on the plane. They don’t know how much Lu meant to me personally. Like I said, I’m not mad at anybody. At the end of the day, the games keep coming and we’ve just got to go out there and give everything we’ve got.
“No tanking,” clarified Noah. “None of that. That no matter who is hurt we give 150 percent win or lose. I know people in the city are proud of that.
“I’m proud of this team,” said Noah. “We’ve been dealing with a lot of adversity over the year. (But) people know when they come to play Chicago no matter if four guys are on the court we’re going to go out and give everything we have and go hard. When you say Chicago Bulls you are in for a fight. I’m proud to be a part of that. It’s always going to be like that.
“I don’t have to be happy with the decisions they make,” said Noah of the trade of Deng. “Everybody has a job to do. At the end of the day, trading Lu is something I won’t understand. But I’ve got to live with it. I’m going to go out on the court and give it everything I have. That’s what we’ve been doing.
“(But) like I said, there’s more to me than winning and losing games,” said Noah. “I’m proud of the way we’ve been fighting, the resilience of the team so far. “Let’s see what happens. Go into the playoffs with a high seed. I think these are realistic goals for us. All I can do is help this team stay focused on the next game, the task ahead. Be out there on the court and be a good leader, keep everyone’s energy level high and focus on the task at hand.
“All this adversity just makes me stronger as a person and a player,” said Noah. “We’ve been through a lot. Derrick’s injury really hit us hard; Lu not being here is really hard. But we’re going to go out there. There’s no tank in this team. We’re going to grind and make this city proud. I’ve never been so hungry.”
That’s as great a dedication as I’ve ever heard around a pro sports team, something that should be read and heard by every high school and college and peewee sports team. Probably in just about any classroom. It’s not about the disappointment and the setback, but how you respond to it and move forward. You don’t always get what you want or get to say how things go. But you can always make a statement with what you do.
The Bulls did that Saturday with a strong start, a 24-17 first quarter lead behind Dunleavy’s shooting and Augustin’s orchestration with Hinrich picking up two early fouls.
“I came in here with the mindset to help this team and this organization any way I could,” said Dunleavy. “I did not think in this capacity. I thought I’d be playing a lot less. But things change. I’m getting more comfortable with playing off Jo and Carlos. D.J. coming in certainly has helped with ball movement. Lu was a great teammate and great guy, but we’ve go to move on and continue to play well. That ship has sailed. Nobody knows what will happen with this team. But we know we can go on the court and play and have a really good season.”
With strong bench play and 43-9 reserve edge over the Bobcats, the Bulls went ahead 52-42 at halftime.
“The Bulls have a great bench,” said Josh McRoberts. “Anytime you can bring a guy like Gibson off the bench you’ve got a real weapon to use. He and the others played huge for them tonight.”
Including Martin, who came in and hit his first four shots while Gibson’s spin moves at the baskets left the Bobcats defenders reaching for air. And ducking.
“Coach told me just to be ready,” said Martin, a basketball gypsy who’d been overseas, in the D-league and with Washington and Charlotte since going undrafted out of Kansas State in 2007. “I knew with JB (Jimmy Butler) being out tonight we were going to be limited on guard play. I’ve played with a couple of these guys before. D.J., Kirk and Nazr Mohammed. I had a little feel for those guys. And the others, just from scouting reports and knowing those guys and playing against those guys, I feel I fit right in.”
Martin was more impressive than any D-League player to come to the Bulls in years and the classic story of a player good enough but who being undrafted went up against too many guaranteed contracts. He’s a good shooting small forward who got overlooked playing power forward in college and not a big time ballhandler. But he’s confident and can make shots, a desperate Bulls need.
The Bulls looked like they were on the way to another win going ahead 63-48 in the third with Noah mopping up every missed shot and the Bulls scoring on the second chances. But the Bobcats’ small lineup made that lead shrink and by the end of the third quarter it was 70-70. The Bobcats briefly took the lead to open the fourth. But Noah and his mates would not let this one get away.
“Every time we get knocked down, we have gotten back up,” said Thibodeau. “That’s the mentality you have to have in this league. Things don’t always go your way. You can’t just sit there and mope. You have to move on and get ready for the next one. I’ve said this before: If you’re not satisfied with your circumstances, you have to do everything you can to change them. That is what our team is doing. We are fighting, scratching, clawing, doing everything we have to do.”