Tuesday, January 7, 2014
Joakim Noah plays for Luol Deng, excels
By Nick Friedell
CHICAGO -- Joakim Noah strode through the hallways inside the United Center late Tuesday night looking like a man who did not want to be bothered.
He had a gray scarf wrapped around his head, covering up much of his face and usual exuberant personality in the process.
Bulls center Joakim Noah gave his all Tuesday night, according to his teammate Taj Gibson, in honor of recently traded Luol Deng. "We talked about it," Gibson said. "That's how he played tonight."
The scene seemed fitting, given just moments earlier a Chicago Bulls PR representative walked out of a back room in the team locker room to say that Noah would not be speaking to the media. This was after Noah declined to speak to reporters after shootaround and before the game.
The emotional center had heavy thoughts on his mind and chose to keep them to himself.
The reality was settling in that after almost seven seasons playing together with Luol Deng, Noah would be moving on in Chicago without him.
It was a cold actuality for the happy-go-lucky big man. But it was no small coincidence that Noah enjoyed one of his best efforts of the season -- this in the first game in his career in which he and Deng were not on the same roster.
On the day Noah and his teammates started to come to grips with Deng now being a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, not the Bulls, Noah decided to honor his teammate the best way he knew how: by playing hard all night.
"We talked about it," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "Jo said he loves this game and he's going to play exactly how Lu plays the game. We're going to go out there and leave every ounce of energy and sweat on that court and know that you gave it your all. At the end of the day, all you can say is that you went out there, did your job, represented the team on your chest and played it to the fullest.
"That's one thing that he learned from Lu. That's one thing that I learned from Lu. That's how he played tonight."
The fact that Noah had one of his season’s strongest outings -- 14 points, 16 rebounds and six assists -- under such emotional circumstances could be seen as a bit of a surprise. He’s been known to be up and down on the floor when he is dealing with other events in his life.
But this day was different because Noah knew he was playing for more than just Deng. He was playing to show his own front office and the rest of the league that the Bulls have more to show in a season that has been star-crossed with injuries from the beginning.
"I feel like Jo feels we have a lot to prove still," Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler said. "You know people count us out and Jo's not the one to go for that at all. So if people overlook us, Jo's going to put the game face on and go out there and compete and produce and play well and carry this team to victory."
Noah has always been a very cerebral player. He knows what's going on off the floor. While he might not agree with the Bulls' decision to deal Deng, he surely understands the financial ramifications moving forward. He's been in the league long enough to know that it is a business -- a business that can change at the drop of a hat.
Still, the Deng trade is an adjustment Noah and his teammates are still getting used to. The 28-year-old center leaned on Deng to be the stabilizing force in the locker room when he couldn't keep his emotions in check. He built up a friendship with Deng off the court and a trust level with him on it. Now he must take the things he learned from the All-Star forward and apply them in his own manner.
"Joakim is an emotional guy," Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. "It's good. It's also what drives him. You don't want to take that away from him. He's fine. He's close to Luol. When you play with anyone for a long time, you develop a closeness. Joakim responded, he got himself together and was ready to go. His defense was off the charts and his playmaking got us into the flow of the game. He is one of the leaders of the team."
Without Derrick Rose being around and now with Deng not being there for guidance, Noah must continue to grow up and remember what Deng taught him through the years. Noah always knew it was possible Deng could be dealt, but that reality appeared to be especially hard on him as he walked out of the United Center late Tuesday night.