- Nick Friedell, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Chicago Bulls have entered a brand new world.
Without Joakim Noah, they are obviously a different team -- one that struggles in the post, struggles to grab rebounds and struggles to find energy on a consistent basis. They did all of those things on Thursday night as they gave away a 17-point lead and ended up giving away a very winnable game to the Memphis Grizzlies in a 105-96 loss.
It would be easy to look at the numbers and see how the Grizzlies were able to come back and win. They shot 53 percent from the field and out-rebounded the Bulls 46-31. The most glaring thing about Noah's absence, though, is not something you'd be able to pick up from a statistic.
That's because Noah, the team’s emotional leader, provides so much energy that feeds his teammates during the game. He's the guy who provides the spark for the Bulls when they are in need of one, as they were several times on Thursday night.
Without Noah in the lineup, the Bulls have to pull off the most difficult of basketball feats.
They have to figure out a way to win while the heart of their team sits on the bench in street clothes with a brace on his foot.
"It's the worst, man," Noah said of having to watch his teammates struggle without him. "I want to be out there and I want to play. At the same time if it's to play for five minutes and not be able to play the rest of the game, there's no [point]. It doesn't make sense. It's just tough right now, a tough loss. Obviously, of course I want to be out there. It's hard not to be. But I got to do what I got to do."
It's clear to anyone who has watched the Bulls this season, including the players, that Noah's presence is something that the team simply couldn't lose.
"That's a player you can't replace," Bulls point guard Derrick Rose said. "He's a good player. We're hoping that he comes back soon. We know his injury is going to keep him out for a while, but we can't use that as an excuse. We still got to go out there and play the game."
Even Rose admits that there really isn't another player who can replicate the passion that the big center provides.
"He's that type of guy,” Rose said. “When he comes in he's always talking, always doing effort plays to give us extra possessions out there. Right now we've just got to find a way without him out there."
Rookie forward Taj Gibson echoed Rose's sentiments. He admitted that he notices a difference in the team’s energy without Noah on the floor “especially in the fourth quarter when it's time to bring it home.
“We just need that kick and [Thursday] night you could just feel it,” Gibson said. “Sometimes you play the game so much you can sense something in the air, you've got a vibe when your team is just not pulling through right now. We got to pick it up. Guys can talk it, like ‘Come on, let's go. Let's go.’ But it takes action on the court. It was tough. We didn't pull through towards the end. And it's frustrating."
What has to be especially troubling for Vinny Del Negro & Co. is that Noah provided exactly the type of vocal presence that Gibson said was lacking on Thursday night.
"It's been frustrating," the Bulls coach admitted before the game. "But you can't let that sink in. You just got to keep battling and fighting. No excuses. There's no question. Talent, size. Having Jo out there, we're a different team. That's just the way it is. Every team's got to fight through it. Some have more injuries than others. You just got to keep on battling. Our guys are staying together. They've handled a lot of adversity this year. We got 22 games and we've just got to keep battling and fighting."
Without Noah, that’s going to be an excruciatingly painful hill to climb.
"I'm just trying to get ready as fast as I can," Noah said of his possible return. "[Thursday night] was definitely a tough loss. Games like this are games that we really need to win, especially at this time of year. But we can't get discouraged. We got a lot of tough games coming up so we just got to get ready. I'm just trying to do the things I can control and get back there as soon as I can -- hopefully sooner than later."
If Noah's return doesn't come soon for the Bulls, they won't have to worry about a later.
This season will be over and the possibility of a playoff berth will have slipped away.
13dMatt Walks, ESPN.com