- Nick Friedell, ESPN Staff Writer
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MILWAUKEE -- Joakim Noah stood in the bowels of the Bradley Center, huddled around an old television while the rest of his teammates got dressed in the locker room on Saturday night.
It was about an hour and a half before the Bulls-Bucks tipoff, but there was another game that had Noah's attention at the moment. His beloved Florida Gators were fighting the Butler Bulldogs to reach yet another Final Four and Noah wasn't about to miss the chance to see it happen.
"Gatorboys!" he bellowed after a big shot.
Noah couldn't stand it that he had no control over the game. He took a few steps in either direction as a small crowd began to circle around him. As the seconds ticked away, Noah got even more anxious. When Florida’s Erving Walker missed a halfcourt heave at the buzzer, Noah walked dejectedly back to the locker room, certain that he would hear some ribbing from his teammates. You got the sense that if Noah could pull the fuzzy orange hat which sat atop his head all the way over his face, he might have done it.
Butler was headed back to the Final Four. Florida was headed home. And I was left to ponder something Noah said on Friday morning while discussing the route his Gators took to their back-to-back NCAA titles and if he was starting to harken back to any of those feelings as the Bulls attempted to start a run of their own.
"People have this feeling that we dominated for two years," Noah said of his time at Florida. "I'll always remember playing in the Sweet 16 [in 2006] and Corey Brewer hitting a shot he's never hit before with 10 seconds left to get us up one against Georgetown. If he doesn't hit that shot, we probably don't make it and win back-to-back titles. It just shows how funny this game is. You've got to stay on edge and stay focused and understand that you can't take anything for granted."
As he walked back into the locker room, Noah had to remind himself the same thing.
He was sad, but he knows he has bigger things on his plate at the moment. His team has a two-game lead over the Boston Celtics for the top spot in the Eastern Conference that they are determined to protect.
"We're following," he said of the Celtics. "I'd be lying if I said we weren't following. But at the same time, we understand that we control our destiny. And the only thing we can control is what we do, what we bring every day here in the Berto [Center]."
That's the type of attitude Noah's former college coach Billy Donovan helped him develop. And there's no doubt Donovan will relay the same message to his new players as they try to bounce back next season from the tough defeat they suffered on Saturday night.
Thibs not worried about Noah's production: Putting aside Noah's misery over Florida, the more pressing issue for the Bulls is that his rebounding numbers have not been the same since he returned from thumb surgery after the All-Star break.
"He missed a lot of time, that's the biggest thing," Thibodeau said before Saturday night's game. "So his timing is still not what he, or we, would like it to be, but it's getting there. He's getting his hands on a lot of balls; he's not coming up with them, but you can see it. And it will come. He's putting a lot of extra work in and I think when you're out there playing it's a lot different than running on a treadmill and stuff like that, so he's getting better and better."
Noah didn't seem too concerned about his conditioning either, when the topic came up on Friday.
"I feel good," he said. "I feel like I'm just starting to get my legs back and my rhythm back and just working. [I'm] just really excited and I feel I'm not going to take none of this for granted. I'm just enjoying it, but at the same time not satisfied, because I feel like we have a ways to go."
As for the jump shot he was hitting so often early in the season, Noah doesn't sound too concerned that it has disappeared for good.
"We'll see," he said of "The Tornado." "We'll see where the game takes you. I'm not here to shoot jump shots. If it presents itself and I'm in rhythm then I'll shoot it. Otherwise, I'll stick to getting tip-ins."
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