CHICAGO -- Joakim Noah refuses to acknowledge that he is the leader of the Chicago Bulls. Despite the fact that all of his teammates look up to him, and his coaches depend on him, Noah doesn't want to single himself out from the group.
"Nah. I think everybody's a leader," Noah said Saturday night after the Bulls' 91-81 win over the Philadelphia 76ers, when asked if he saw himself as the team's torchbearer.
This particular victory offered up another example of why Noah's wrong.
The emotional big man once again had a big night on the stat sheet -- with 20 points, eight rebounds and four assists -- but the biggest single difference in Noah's game this season might be the fact that he has become the type of leader that the Bulls look to, and try to find, down the stretch in games. Without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng on the floor, Noah has developed just as much off the floor as a leader as he has on it. His teammates take their cues from him and they trust him implicitly.
When these Bulls are in need of a basket, or a big play, it's Noah who gets the ball in his hands -- and it's Noah who delivers more often that not. Noah has become the go-to playmaker for a team that needed one when Rose went down. Alongside D.J. Augustin, Noah has become the most important late-game weapon the Bulls have.
The veteran center knows that the mental grind of a season is almost more of a factor on a night-to-night basis than the physical one, but he's the reason Chicago is able to get up for games like Saturday's against a team that has now lost 24 in a row.
"It's every day," Noah said of his mental preparation. "It's all day. It's your preparation. It's the way you take care of your body. It's getting treatment. It's the amount of work you put into your craft. It's respecting your opponent, respecting what they do, knowing your opponent. It's an all-day [process]. It's a lifestyle."
It's a lifestyle that he has gotten his team to buy into as well. The Bulls continue to win games because Noah is playing the best basketball of his career and coach Tom Thibodeau continues to press all the right buttons in his plan. The Bulls aren't playing against opponents in the final few weeks of the season as much as they're playing against themselves. They know what it takes to win in the playoffs and they know they have to prepare mentally for the grind that comes with the postseason.
"That's one of the things about having a coach like Thibs," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "He tells you to lock in and he challenges you every time, and we've just got to get better with it. There's no excuses come playoff time. There's no excuses. Like he said, everybody has to straighten their games up, get it real tight ... everybody has to get right, now."
The Bulls are doing their best on that front -- no matter who they are playing. They've got another big test against the Indiana Pacers on Monday night, but they were happy to pull out another win against a Sixers team that has played hard in both meetings against the Bulls this week.
"It's difficult," Noah said of playing against a team like Philadelphia. "You got to give a lot of respect to that team. Even though they've lost so many games, they play hard every night. People don't realize how hard it is to win in this league, even against a team like that who's lost so many games in a row. I respect the hell out of the team, they play hard every night."
That's high praise from an All-Star center who has developed a reputation around the league by playing the same way ... every night.