Noah will have a tough time grabbing the league’s top-player award away from guys such as LeBron James or Kevin Durant, but in this slice of the Midwest, he is as valuable as they come for a team making serious noise despite the losses of Derrick Rose (knee injury) and Luol Deng (trade).
Saturday was just another example of his value, as the big man scored 23 points to go with 11 rebounds -- his 34th double-double of the season -- in a 94-87 victory over Sacramento.
Noah has stepped up to cover the massive void left by a pair of All-Stars and continues to push this Bulls team into what had seemed so improbable not that long ago: Home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
“I don’t like them,” Noah said of the MVP chants. “I don’t like it but that’s not what is important to me. It’s just all about this team right now. I think we’ve been through so much. It’s not about individual accolades, it’s about us and everything we’ve gone through. That’s what this season is about to me.”
Like it or not, it’s what happens when fans can see something special. Superstar status was a bit of a reach when Noah came into the league as a high-energy player willing to do all the dirty work, but he has catapulted his unique skill set into the conversation regarding the top players in the game.
In addition to his points and rebounds against the Kings, Noah recorded eight assists and five blocks, making him just one of three players this season to have turned in at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in a single game. The twist is that Noah is the only player in the NBA to have done it twice, after also hitting those marks against the Miami Heat last Sunday.
“The first thing is that [Noah’s] game is through the roof right now, his confidence is through the roof,” said teammate Taj Gibson, who also was key with 19 points and nine rebounds off the bench. “The NBA is all about confidence, and when you work on your game and get that confidence going, you’re unstoppable. I feel that he’s taking it to the next level, head up with confidence.”
Gibson also lauded Noah’s leadership skills, but like Noah's reticence with embracing the MVP chants, being the Bulls' primary leader isn’t a title he is comfortable carrying alone.
“I think that a lot of guys need to step up in order for us to do something special and I think a lot of guys are stepping up,” Noah said. “I just like our demeanor out there, especially at the end of the game. Every time you step on the court you learn something about our team, and today I think the best part about it was just our composure down the stretch.”
Against a Kings team that entered 19 games under .500, the Bulls struggled with the size and strength of their opponent. The Kings owned the rebounding battle, finishing with a 55-40 advantage, and in two games this season the Kings have outrebounded the Bulls 108-70.
But Noah was up for the challenge inside, going 7-of-8 from the field and 3-of-3 from the free throw line in the first half, when he was primarily matched up against the imposing 6-foot-11, 270-pound DeMarcus Cousins. His strong fourth quarter ended a full night's work.
After guarding the Houston Rockets' Dwight Howard and Cousins in back-to-back games, Noah looked spent, but the two victories seemed to make it all worthwhile.
“There are definitely easier things in life,” Noah said. “I’m just happy coming out with two big wins for us. We know Sacramento is a team that gives us fits, but we found a way tonight and that’s big.”
Mike Dunleavy added 16 and DJ Augustin 12 for the Bulls.
Both teams struggled on offense, with the Bulls shooting 40 percent and the Kings 37 percent.
The Bulls, who are fourth in the Eastern Conference, improved to 3-2 on their six-game homestand. The Kings are 2-4 on their seven-game road trip.
Cousins hit a layup with 1:01 left to cut the Bulls' lead to 88-85.
Gibson responded with a jumper and the Bulls made four of six free throws to seal the win.
CHICAGO – Despite getting crushed on the boards, the Chicago Bulls held on for a 94-87 victory Saturday over the Sacramento Kings.
How it happened: The Bulls’ issues with the Kings in Sacramento spilled over into the United Center, as they had a tough time shaking a team that entered the contest 19 games under .500. Each of the past two seasons the Kings have routed the Bulls, and when asked about it at shootaround Saturday, coach Tom Thibodeau wasn’t interested in addressing it outside of one- or two-word answers. Joakim Noah helped save the day with 23 points and 11 rebounds, while Taj Gibson added 19 points off the bench, including a key jumper from the wing with less than a minute to play.
What it means: The triple-threat Kings provide an interesting matchup issue for the Bulls. A quick point guard in Isaiah Thomas, combined with the inside play of DeMarcus Cousins and the athleticism of Rudy Gay, continues to test Chicago and provide a possible blueprint on how to beat the Bulls. Interestingly, the big issue is how the Kings use their personnel on defense against the Bulls, which can lead to a few easy baskets and expose an offense that already has its weaknesses.
Hits: Noah was engaged in his matchup with Cousins from the outset, going 7-of-8 from the field in the first half and 3-of-3 from the free throw line. He then turned up the heat late, capping things with a steal and a length-of-the-court drive in the fourth quarter to score while getting fouled.
Misses: Jimmy Butler had delivered double-digit scoring efforts in eight of his previous nine games, but didn’t register his first point until making a free throw with 3 minutes, 50 seconds remaining in the game. His first field goal came with 3:21 remaining as he started 0-for-10 from the field.
Stat of the night: The Kings crushed the Bulls on the boards, winning the rebounding battle 55-40.
What’s next: The Bulls host the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night.
DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Tom Thibodeau is all about the task at hand, always preferring to focus on the next challenge the schedule brings, but he admitted Saturday to peeking ahead just a little.
With 17 games remaining in the regular season, counting Saturday night’s matchup against the Sacramento Kings, the playoffs are right around the corner and Thibodeau is not ignoring his team’s first-round matchup possibilities.
“You have to be aware,” Thibodeau said at Saturday morning’s shootaround. “You’re always looking at what’s going on. But the important thing is to concentrate on the things you need to do each day to improve. Go step by step. It’s all a process. You try to build the right habits to prepare yourself to play your best when your best is needed, which is at the end of the year.”
At the start of play Saturday, the Bulls’ 36-29 record made them the fourth best team in the Eastern Conference. If the season ended today, they would be looking at home-court advantage in a first-round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets.
Last season, the Bulls went seven games in the first round before dispatching the Nets, but this year it’s an entirely new team in Brooklyn. Not only that, but the Nets are far different at this point of the season than they were during a rocky start under rookie head coach Jason Kidd.
Butler admitted Saturday to a sore rib cage that is on the mend, saying he took a blow in last weekend’s game against the Miami Heat. Pressed a little further, Butler revealed the injury's source.
Sunday’s national televised game was the one where Butler thoroughly frustrated the Miami superstar, especially late in the game when his defense on James was the difference in the Bulls’ victory.
So was the shot to the ribs James’ attempt at revenge?
“It was an accident,” Butler said, dismissing the question.
Intentional or not, Butler knows that nicks and dings come with the territory, especially when guarding the opponents’ top scorer. On Sunday in was James, while Thursday night it was the Houston Rockets’ James Harden.
1. What's Miami's biggest issue right now?
Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com: The "other" guys just aren't in rhythm. The combination of Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen and Norris Cole shot a combined 33.7 percent in the Heat's four recent losses, with Battier's 15 percent shooting (2-of-13) being the worst of the group. That tells you they're not getting the same opportunities as usual, or at least not regularly enough to find a rhythm. That's resulted in the league's most efficient offense shooting 47.5, 43, 40.5 and 48.5 percent in those losses.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider: The Heat are getting nothing from the supporting cast outside of Chris Andersen. Ray Allen and Shane Battier have both shown their age, and Michael Beasley hasn't been the same since they guaranteed his contract back in early January. Besides that, they've faced some tough defenses, so I'm not sure the slide is indicative of any major issues.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: Ray Allen, legendary shooter and hero of Game 6. He's a glaring defensive minus, and he's missing shots that he typically hit in the past. It sounds crazy to say it, but in 2014, you trust Chris Bosh (.386 from deep this season) more to hit an open 3-pointer than Allen (.361 from deep this season). Miami already lost a great shooter when it amnestied Mike Miller; the Heat want Allen to return to form in the playoffs.
Michael Wallace, Heat Index: Supporting cast inconsistency. Early in the season, Ray Allen said this had the potential to be the deepest and most talented collection of role players of any team he's been with over 18 seasons. With 20 games left in the season, we're still waiting for that potential to translate into consistent production. Allen, Shane Battier and Norris Cole have been in prolonged slumps, Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley have been hit or miss all season, and Greg Oden appears no closer to being playoff ready than when he first saw action before the All-Star break.
Brian Windhorst, Heat Index: Execution, specifically late-game execution. Three of these four recent losses were the result of the Heat not being able to execute in the final moments of regulation. When they won 66 games last season, it seemed like they almost always sealed the deal at the end, for various reasons they have not been getting it done lately.
2. Fact or Fiction: LeBron has lost his MVP momentum.
Gutierrez: Fact. A hard crack to the nose will do that sometimes. Since the 61, LeBron has shot more than 50 percent just once in five tries. And it's no coincidence he shot zero free throws in back-to-back games after ditching his mask against the Spurs. Also, his team's struggles are now on the forefront, so the attention has drifted from MVP candidacy anyway.
Haberstroh: Fiction. Are we sure he had any momentum to begin with? I subscribe to Hall of Fame baseball manager Earl Weaver's ethos that "momentum is the next day's starting pitcher." It feels like there is no momentum in this MVP race, as every game seems to be a referendum on Durant's and LeBron's careers. I will say that for a guy who has shot 43 percent from downtown over his last 10 games, it's odd to hear that James has suddenly lost his jumper.
Strauss: Fact. LeBron's mortal stretch contributed to this Heat slump. He looked like a lesser player after ditching the mask, failing to reach the free throw line in consecutive games. LeBron could have taken the award if he and the Heat were customarily excellent as OKC struggled, but that window appears to have closed.
Wallace: Fact. The two strongest arguments in Kevin Durant's case have been that he's been more consistent with his elite-level production and that he's done it in a much stronger Western Conference. Since that career-high, 61-point night two weeks ago, LeBron has hit a relative wall. There's still time for LeBron to make another push, but Durant seems to have regained control of the MVP race.
Windhorst: Fact. He's played probably his four most "blah" games of the season since he put up his 61 points. It's a combination of things -- he's slumped a bit shooting, and he's also not been as aggressive as his plunging free throws and zero fourth-quarter shots in the loss to the Nets show.
3. Fact or Fiction: Brooklyn is Miami's second-biggest threat in East.
Gutierrez: Fiction. As much as a 3-0 record against Miami would suggest otherwise, the Nets aren't dominant in any particular area against Miami. The Bulls, on the other hand, can dominate both on the boards and defensively when playing the Heat. The Nets' specialty is simply interchangeable perimeter defenders and veteran-savvy scorers. But neither team has really emerged as a true threat to the Heat in a seven-game series.
Haberstroh: Fiction. The Chicago Bulls are still that team for me. Even after all these years, the Heat haven't cracked the Tom Thibodeau defense yet. The Heat have defended well enough against the Bulls' feeble offense that they've gotten by. The Nets have done an impressive job against the Heat, but if Bosh makes that pass to LeBron at the end, we aren't even asking this question.
Strauss: Fiction. Regular-season records mean little as far as playoff outcomes go, in most instances. I don't buy that Brooklyn has some magic quality that, say, Toronto lacks. Also, I'd hazard that Chicago's a bigger threat on account of having a defense that makes LeBron less efficient.
Wallace: Fact. The Heat have had regular-season struggles against Chicago, Boston and even New York in the past, only to beat up on those foes in the postseason. But these difficulties with Brooklyn feel different. The Nets have shown during a 3-0 mark against Miami that they can create serious, sustainable matchup problems for the Heat because of their combination of length, skill, perimeter shooting, balance and experience. If healthy, Brooklyn can almost rival Indiana as a potential postseason headache for Miami.
Windhorst: Fact. But this has been the case for a while now, even before they got hot. The Nets have a team that is built for the playoffs because they play at their best when the game is slow, and have postseason experience. However, there's a good chance the Nets will be on the other side of the bracket if the Heat stay in the No. 2 seed, because Toronto has a far easier schedule than the Nets and currently has the No. 3 seed.
4. Fact or Fiction: Three-peat fatigue is a legit concern for Miami.
Gutierrez: Fact, at least currently. It won't continue into the playoffs, but it's real right now and being acknowledged. Perhaps this losing stretch is enough to shake them out of it.
Haberstroh: Fiction. The Heat's last six opponents all rank in the top-10 in defense with the exception of the Nets, who have been a top-5 defense since the new year. OK, and the Wizards rank 11th. Still, I'm blaming the schedule more than fatigue. If Wade, LeBron and Bosh don't get some rest down the stretch run, let's revisit this question.
Strauss: Fiction. Actual, literal fatigue might be a problem for older veterans such as Ray Allen and Shane Battier (and yes, Dwyane Wade), but I don't buy the notion that they're tired of the title-winning process. This seems more like a preemptive excuse than an explanation for why failure might occur.
Wallace: Faction. It's fact in the sense that three straight years of reaching the Finals has been an emotional and psychological grind that LeBron and Chris Bosh are now acknowledging publicly after tough losses. But it's fiction in the sense that you never hear that excuse -- or logical explanation -- used after big wins. There's a burden that comes with being a two-time defending champion. And there's a reason why only three franchises have won three titles in a row.
Windhorst: Fiction. It's really hard to win three consecutive playoff series and reach the Finals -- you need skill, strategy and luck. Doing it four years in a row hasn't happened in 25 years for a reason, because you need those things to align. But the reason the Heat are struggling a little right now has nothing to do with how they'll perform in the postseason, they know what they're doing.
5. Fact or Fiction: Wade's recent play has eased concerns about his health.
Gutierrez: Fact. He looked great Wednesday while the rest of his team was somewhat lethargic, which compounded his frustrations that night. And he played in a Sunday-Monday back-to-back set without any setbacks. At this point it appears if he can avoid a freakish injury, he'll be able to maintain this level of play the rest of the season.
Haberstroh: Fact. Eased is the right word. But there is still some concern because, well, there's three months of basketball before the Finals come around. A lot can happen between now and then, but Wade's strong play as of late -- especially getting to the line -- has given the Heat much validation for their maintenance program.
Strauss: Fact. I say "fact," because wouldn't we all be worried if he was playing badly? Those health concerns will persist, but his stellar recent play has certainly eased some worries.
Wallace: Fact. The steady progress Wade has shown with his game and his knee rehab since the All-Star break has been the most encouraging aspect of the past month for Miami. Despite four losses in the past five games, the silver lining has been Wade's steady and reliable play heading down the stretch as the Heat gear up for the playoffs. One key measure of Miami's success in the regular season was whether the team could get Wade to this point feeling relatively healthy and confident. So far, so good.
Windhorst: Fact. Wade's entire season has been a smashing success. The issue, however, is that Wade seems to have setbacks that last days or weeks without warning and without regard to how careful the team is with him. There hasn't been one since January, but it's hard to know if that's good or bad news since the setbacks have been unforeseen in the past.
CHICAGO -- After taking a Chandler Parsons elbow right above his eye in Thursday night's second quarter, Mike Dunleavy sat inside the Chicago Bulls' locker room with 10 stitches in his face and interesting thoughts running through his head. Minutes earlier, blood poured down the side of his face and gushed to the floor as he made his way back to the locker room to be checked out. Now, the veteran sharpshooter was ready to get back in the game quickly. His eye, which had already started to swell from the collision, had a fresh bandage on it, but he didn't care.
"I was just kind of sitting back here bored," Dunleavy admitted after the Bulls' blowout victory over the Houston Rockets. "Getting stitched up wanting to play."
It's that kind of attitude that defined Dunleavy's night, and the Bulls' season in the process. Dunleavy came out in the third quarter on fire. After failing to register a point in the first half, the proud Duke alum racked up 18 points in the third quarter and finished with 21. After it was over, it seemed like each one of his teammates tried to explain Dunleavy's performance using some time of boxing reference. Taj Gibson sat on one side of the room using the old "Cut me, Mick" line from "Rocky." Joakim Noah said Dunleavy looked like Evander Holyfield after a fight.
No matter how many descriptions flowed, one thing was clear: Dunleavy, who was already well-respected in the locker room because of the way he carries himself on the floor, earned himself even more praise because of his ability to put the pain aside and help push the Bulls to an impressive win.
"Stitches and points," Noah said with a smile. "Stitches and buckets. It was very impressive and it shows a lot about the character of this team. For somebody to get hit the way he got hit, I've never seen nothing like that really. ... Ten stitches, come back and play the second half the way he played. I like that s---."
The hard-charging coach sung Dunleavy's praises because of his attitude even more than his performance. After a rough start to the season, Dunleavy has earned Thibodeau's respect and continues to produce for a team that has counted on Dunleavy's long-range shooting and toughness.
"He's a consummate pro," Thibodeau said of Dunleavy. "He plays hard every night, gives himself up for the team. Offensively, moves great without the ball, shares the ball, moves the ball quickly. Defensively, always sticking his nose in, rebounding, taking charges, and that's the price of winning. And that's why he's so valuable to our team. He came back after taking stitches [and] took another charge. To me, when you talk about toughness, that's toughness. You have to have mental toughness, physical toughness. He has it."
It was the charge that represented everything to Thibodeau. Dunleavy could have easily stepped aside from the contact, but that's not the way he plays the game. That's not the way most of his teammates play the game. The Bulls have built a culture that their players take pride in. They will themselves through injury and pain because they know Thibodeau demands more.
"I think the doctor was a little nervous," Dunleavy said of taking that second-half charge. "He just told me I should have waited a little bit longer to do that. And I said, 'Hey, man, I had to test out your job right away and see if you're any good.'"
The Bulls are the ones who know they're good these days. They never lost faith in themselves after a terrible game against the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night -- always believing that they would turn things around soon. Every time they hit the floor they believe they can win -- a belief that didn't exist a few months ago.
"We're usually a great first-quarter team normally," Bulls forward Carlos Boozer said. "San Antonio, that's not normal for us. We usually smash other teams in the mouth early. But tonight we got back to playing how we usually play and playing the style that we like to play, and hopefully we can build on that."
As for Dunleavy, he has to hope the swelling in his eye goes down so that he's ready to play Saturday night against the Sacramento Kings. After watching how he performed Thursday, his teammates don't have any doubt he'll find a way to be out there -- nobody is questioning his toughness.
"It was good for Duke's street credibility," Noah said.
CHICAGO -- Late in the evening Tuesday, long after the Bulls' desultory loss to San Antonio, Joakim Noah finally appeared and stood near his locker in full uniform for his regular postgame media debriefing.
The tallest Bull was upset but not angry.
His team had gotten blown out early by the methodical Spurs, only creeping back to respectability -- and a 104-96 loss -- during "Jimmer Time" in the fourth quarter.
Noah takes losses hard -- "It'll be tough to go to bed tonight," he said -- and the only victories he really celebrates come against the Miami Heat, whom the Bulls had defeated just two days prior.
So when a reporter asked Noah if the makeup of the locker room helps the team bounce back from these types of games, he barely blinked before giving his answer.
"I don't take anything for granted, this team doesn't take anything for granted," Noah said. "Just because you usually do something doesn't mean it just happens. You gotta go out there and do it."
A bounce-back victory seemed to be in the cards, and the Bulls went out and got one.
As reporter and subject expected, Chicago bounced back with a vengeance Thursday night, drubbing the Houston Rockets 111-87. It was a fun victory -- and a gutty one.
CHICAGO -- Mike Dunleavy scored all of his 21 points in the second half, Joakim Noah flirted with another triple-double and the Chicago Bulls posted a 111-87 wire-to-wire victory over the Houston Rockets on Thursday night.
Noah finished with 13 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in 34 minutes. He was headed for his fourth triple-double of the season, but sat down with about three minutes left because of the lopsided score.
The Bulls improved to 2-2 on their six-game home stand.
The Rockets have dropped two straight. Reserve guard Jeremy Lin led Houston with 21 points, while Dwight Howard had 12 points and 10 rebounds in 28 minutes. James Harden had eight points on 2-for-7 shooting in 27 minutes.
CHICAGO -- Let's take a quick look at how the Chicago Bulls cruised to a 111-87 win over the Houston Rockets on Thursday night at the United Center.
How it happened: Mike Dunleavy didn't score in the first half and had to leave the game to get stitches after taking a Chandler Parsons elbow to the head. He came back in the third quarter and scored 18 of his 21 points as the Bulls dominated in the final 24 minutes. Kirk Hinrich added 19 points, while Joakim Noah almost notched another triple-double, finishing with 13 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. Jeremy Lin led the Rockets with 21 points.
What it means: Tom Thibodeau and his team were embarrassed with the way they played early in Tuesday's loss to the San Antonio Spurs and were determined to turn things around against the Rockets. While the Bulls' offense got rolling in the second half, the key for them is that their defense was on point throughout the night. They didn't allow Dwight Howard to get going early, and they limited what his teammates were able to do around him. They didn't allow Houston to get moving in transition -- and it made a big difference. Thibodeau has to be pleased with how his team responded against a high-quality Western Conference opponent.
Hits: Carlos Boozer had his best game in several weeks, finishing with 18 points and seven rebounds.
Misses: Aside from Howard's 5-for-7 effort from the field, the rest of the Rockets' starting five (Parsons, Terrence Jones, James Harden and Patrick Beverley) were a combined 7-for-34 from the field.
Stats of the night: The Bulls started the third quarter on a 16-0 run. They outscored the Rockets 35-16 in that frame. Chicago finished 14-for-24 from beyond the 3-point arc.
What's next: The Bulls host the Sacramento Kings on Saturday night.
What Beverley did against Westbrook, getting up his face and making him earn every inch with the basketball, was what Beverley did for three years under Bryant at Marshall High School on Chicago’s West Side.
“This is basketball,” Bryant said by phone Thursday. “I’m just saying this is a business. It’s not personal. He has to put food on his table. It’s a dog-eat-dog world.
“The stuff he does is crazy. He’s a junkyard dog. He takes pride in defense first and offense second. When he played for me, he never took a breather. We pressed the entire game. We were able to play that way the whole game. It was crazy. He just ran and ran.”