- Nick Friedell, ESPN Staff Writer
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With 7.5 seconds left and the game tied at 82, Marco Belinelli clanked a 3-point shot from the corner that appeared to be headed out of bounds underneath the Bulls' basket. That's when a quick thinking Noah altered the course of the game -- and his week -- in the span of a couple moments.
The 7-foot center hurled his body toward the ball and, jumping over the line, whipped it back in play just before crashing hard into several cheerleaders. Belinelli picked up the loose ball, drove to the rim, scored and was fouled as a sellout crowd of 21,567 erupted at the United Center.
But Noah missed all of it. He was still on the ground trying to make sure his teeth hadn't been knocked out.
"I didn't even really see it," Noah admitted. "I had the cheerleaders’ pom-poms in my face."
In a week that has been filled with ups and downs for the 27-year-old big man, Noah made the type of play that has defined his career: He hustled to a ball that few other players would have even attempted to save. In the process, he also helped bring the Bulls all the way back from a 17-point deficit in a game that looked and felt like one they would find a way to lose, as they have so many times this season.
"It was a dangerous play because I kept it in play," Noah said. "It could have went either way. If they get the ball, it's a four-on-five fast break on the other side. Fortunately, Marco got the ball.
“I didn't really see the play, but I just heard the crowd and it was an and-1. The basketball gods were on our side again."
The basketball gods have had a love/hate relationship with the mercurial big man recently:
On Saturday night in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, Noah was benched for the final 22:53 of the second half and overtime by Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau after mouthing off when he was taken out of the game. Just a few days later, against the Pistons, the veteran coach praised the way his center laid his body on the line for the team that has always followed his lead.
"That was incredible," Thibodeau said. "I don't know how he got to it. It was an incredible play, and then Marco making the shot and hitting the free throw. It is big-time stuff. Joakim was something. He had 18 rebounds and did not come out in the second half. He made great hustle plays. I thought our team spirit was terrific. That unit that finished the game really inspired us."
It was Noah and diminutive guard Nate Robinson who inspired everybody Wednesday night. The only reason the Bulls were able to sneak back into this game is because their dynamic duo made sure everybody was giving the type of maximum effort that Thibodeau preaches about on a nightly basis.
Robinson scored nine of his 11 points in the fourth quarter, and Noah ended the game with 18 rebounds. Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson played huge roles, as well. But it's clear to see that Noah and Robinson set a trend that everyone else follows.
"I can speak for [Noah] when I say this: We just play for the fun of the game," Robinson said. "We just have fun and the energy's always going to be there. We just try to have that snowball effect on everybody else in the arena, and it does. For us, that's our biggest [addition] to the game: coming in and bringing energy. That's the gift that we can bring to everybody else is to play as hard as you can and to have fun. We have fun out there and you can see it on guys' faces. Everybody's involved, the crowd, even Coach a couple times.”
“Deep down inside, Thibs wants to smile but he doesn't,” Robinson said. “But he really does sometimes."
Thibodeau had to be smiling after this game.
He always knew Noah could play this way, which is one of the reasons why the domineering coach made the decision to sit the heart and soul of his team Saturday night.
It's a decision that Noah took full responsibility for after Monday's win against the Los Angeles Lakers. The result already has started paying dividends for a team that has shown time and time again it is willing to fight even without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng in the lineup.
"Things like this happen more than you would even realize," Noah said of his up-and-down five-day stretch. "I'm an emotional player and this basketball season is a roller coaster, so I try to be as controlled as possible. But it's tough for me."
What Noah has never struggled with is wearing those emotions on his sleeve. Without Rose and Deng on the floor, Noah is the straw that stirs the drink in Chicago. His teammates feed off his energy. And his alert, game-changing out-of-bounds maneuver at the end was the talk of the Bulls' locker room; everyone seemed astonished he was able to push the ball back in bounds and save the day.
"Jo's a freak athlete," Butler said. "That's what he does. That's a big hustle play by Jo and that just shows his competitive spirit that he'll give his body for the team -- give his body to get that ball back inbounds to Marco for the and-1."
Noah hasn't taken the next step in his game this season by simply giving up his body. He has become an even better player because he's starting to play with both his body and his mind. He's a smarter player than ever before, and his peers know it. That's why his up-and-down week may end on the highest note of his career Thursday night if he gets selected to his first All-Star team.
"It would be really special to be selected as an All-Star," Noah admitted. "But you got to control what you can. I can't really control that. Only time will tell."