TORONTO -- The message on the white board in the Chicago Bulls locker room was simple:
How bad do we want it?
Joakim Noah took that message to heart on Sunday night and proved once again that he probably wants it more than anybody.
The Bulls center had 18 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists as the Bulls finished off a game that they had to have, beating the Toronto Raptors 104-88 and taking sole possession of the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race in the process.
"I knew it was a really important game," Noah said. "I was really focused. I just wanted to go out there and impose my will as much as I could. Just be aggressive offensively and defensively. I'm happy. It was a huge win, and I just wanted to make sure our team played harder than their team."
Noah did exactly what he set out to accomplish on Sunday night.
His teammates followed his lead all day long.
There was no denying that there was a different vibe in the Bulls locker room before the game. The boisterous give and take between players was replaced was an eerie calm minutes before the biggest game of the year.
Bulls All-Star point guard Derrick Rose believes that attention to detail can all be traced back to the example Noah set earlier in the day.
"He was focused, man," Rose said. "Telling people there was no need to play around. Making sure everybody was coming in, doing their work."
The Bulls fed off the emotions of their young center from the beginning of the game to the end, and that's why they gave him a rousing ovation as he hobbled back into the Bulls' victorious locker room with a big ice pack wrapped around his knee.
"I think we always [feed off Noah's emotions] do," veteran guard Kirk Hinrich said. "Any time he's out there, his energy is there. And that's a big part of who we are."
"He's a guy who's always energetic," he said of Noah. "Always yelling, talking. You see he's giving all his energy while he's out there. You want to do the same when you see him do all that stuff."
It is ironic that Noah's best game of the year comes on the heels of one of the strangest three day stretches of the team's already bizarre season.
After blowing a game against the lowly Nets on Friday night, Bulls coach Vinny Del Negrospent most of Saturday's media session fielding questions as to why he hadn't played his emotional center in the waning moments of the game. The coach and management did not appear to be on the same page, and it looked as if the Bulls' season, which had been teetering on the brink to begin with, was about to go down the tubes. The drama couldn't have come at a worse time considering the biggest game of the season was just 24 hours away.
The fact that the Bulls played as well as they did given the circumstances makes this particular win the team's biggest and best of the season. When you see how well the Bulls play when Noah is on the floor, it's easy to see why Del Negro pressed so hard to get him back on the court when he was dealing with plantar fasciitis in his left foot in the middle of the season. Noah makes the Bulls a much more dangerous team.
"He just brings energy," Del Negro said. "He brings length. His offense is improving. He's gaining confidence in his elbow jump shot. He makes things happen with his length and his aggressiveness. Our guys feed off that. He gets us out on the break with his rebounding. Obviously, he's much better when he's in there. We get out on the break, get some easy ones. Open the court up for Derrick a little bit.
"There's a big effect when he's in the game, there's no question about it. But that's for any really good player in this league. When you have the better players and your top players in the game. Usually your success rate goes up."
For Noah, he's just glad to be able to continue to that success rate again -- without any restrictions.
"We really played hard," he said as he soaked his ailing feet in a blue box of ice. "We played the right way. We followed the game plan. It was just a question of coming out with the right intensity. I think we came with the right intensity tonight, and I'm happy that we got the W."