David Thorpe Loves Joakim Noah's Foul

April, 20, 2009
4/20/09
10:34
AM ET

You can see it at about the 2:30 mark of this video.

In a nutshell, with the Bulls up one and the game clock in its final seconds, Paul Pierce made his way with the ball towards the elbow, shadowed by Kirk Hinrich. Joakim Noah -- who had been watching Glen Davis under the hoop -- thundered out to help on Pierce. 

As Noah approached, Pierce rose to fire.

Noah crushed the ball, and (although it's a little hard to tell on regular speed video) quite probably a hunk of Pierce's arm, too. 

It was a foul on Noah. He argued it a little, but I think just about everyone had already convicted him. Despite his NCAA championships, his hustle and his great play all night in Boston, he's still the guy who got busted by the cops, essentially for partying. He's the guy who recently said on the record that his friends could make their own version of Entourage with their antics. He's the guy with the crazy hair, the crazy screaming, and the crazy dance moves.

And what's he doing? He's fouling the jump shooter, as in, he's breaking one of basketball's oldest axioms. With the game on the line. Potentially negating the high point of post-Jordan  Bulls history.

I don't know what Noah's teammate Kirk Hinrich was feeling at the moment of that play -- was he exasperated at Noah, or the referee? -- but he was surely disgusted. Watch his body language. Just fed up. Announcers, fans, media ... everyone seemed to agree this was a disastrously good example of what's wrong with Joakim Noah.

Noah didn't help matters by standing there holding his head in disbelief at the call. He didn't look like a guy who knew what he was doing.

And yet somewhere the smartest basketball guy I know, David Thorpe, cheered. When Noah fell to the Bulls on draft day 2007, Thorpe told me that he thought the Bulls would win a championship with him.

The kinds of things that made him say that, believe it or not, were at the heart of this play.

"Sure," says Thorpe, "I wish he didn't come down quite so aggressively. But you're playing the defending champions on the road. This is a Paul Pierce jumper from the free throw line. You can't play solid. You have to make a play."

The irony, he points out, is that this play is right out of Tom Thibodeau's Boston Celtics' playbook. One thing that Thorpe and his IMG Academies colleague Mike Moreau have been noticing all year about the Celtics is that they do foul jump shooters. Not constantly, but more than most good defensive teams.

And to Moreau and Thorpe, that's OK. 

"The reality is that you need to contest shots so aggressively all the time," Thorpe explains. "That's what Joakim does. You ask him to go hard, and he goes hard. The Celtics, too. And you can't go that hard and not cross the line once in a while. Coach Moreau said it's like asking someone to run 28 miles, and then getting mad because they ran 28 miles and one foot."

Thorpe points out that Joakim Noah holds the all-time record for blocks in the Final Four, and in the NCAA tournament -- despite the fact that he's not really known as a shot-blocker. That, Thorpe says, is because Noah contests shots hard. "The fact is, you can't apply standard rules to that guy," says Thorpe. "And Gator fans know what I mean when I say 'thank goodness.' His pushing those limits is a big reason why Florida won two titles, instead of none."

Thorpe points out that the Bulls were making big aggressive contests like that all night, and did that help Ray Allen into a bad night? That's the idea ... "Ray Allen had a good look at the end of overtime," says Thorpe, "and missed badly. One thing he might have been thinking was 'here they come ... I better get rid of it quickly.'"

If you get people thinking like that, that's good defense.

Thorpe contrasts it to how Hedo Turkoglu defended the final possession against Andre Iguodala. Everybody agrees that was great defense by Turkoglu, and he sure didn't foul the jump shooter. But Thorpe posits that by being determined not to foul, Turkoglu's defense lost a little edge.

"To play at the highest level," says Thorpe, "you're going to to over the top sometimes. You'll risk some mistakes. And that's OK. Sometimes, you're not playing percentages ... you just want to go play. To me, Hedo Turkoglu is 6-10, and Andre Iguodala is 6-6 -- just make a play. I don't care what happens. Make that play. That's what Joakim did, and I'll take it."

And in the end of course, the fates smiled on Noah for his aggression, as so often seems to happen. Not only did Paul Pierce miss one of the free throws to ensure overtime, but they also proved Noah somewhat correct -- in overtime Pierce made that exact same shot with ease. We'll never know if his earlier shot would have gone in, thanks to Joakim Noah, and that could be a good thing for Bulls fans.

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