- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- On Wednesday night, Joakim Noah sat at his locker with ice on his knees and love in his heart.
Coming off a valiant effort in the All-Star Game and a magazine pictorial in this month's GQ, Noah, the league's foremost Bob Marley fan, has a reason to believe every little thing is going to be all right.
Outsiders think of Noah as a lovable goofball. But the center, as we know in Chicago, is a very serious basketball player on a very serious basketball team. And there's nothing he loves more than winning.
After the Chicago Bulls' 103-83 beatdown of the Golden State Warriors on the second night of a back-to-back, Noah balanced his joy with his own high expectations, often searching for the right words to satiate reporters.
But he was undeniably happy, dealing compliments like bounce passes.
Asked about shooting guard Jimmy Butler, Noah said:
"Jimmy brings that fire. He brings that intensity. He brings a lot of heart to this team. He takes matchups real personally. I love that about him. I think he represents what Chicago Bulls basketball is all about."
Asked about the identity of this Bulls team, which improved to 31-26, despite having the worst offense in the NBA:
"I love it. To be known as the team that goes out there and gives it everything they got every night, that's a good feeling. You can't ask for anything more."
Asked to compare this year's Derrick Rose-less team to last year's Derrick Rose-less team:
"Only time will tell. Because at the end of day, it's all about the playoffs."
If only the playoffs started next week, because this Bulls team is humming and healthy.
The Bulls came into the game as point-spread underdogs and trailed by three after the first quarter. But they took control of the game with a 35-21 second quarter and shut the door on any thoughts of a Stephen Curry-led comeback with a 24-14 third. Chicago led by as many as 28.
Noah only scored eight points, but the Bulls' MVP added seven assists and 17 rebounds as the Bulls out-worked the offensively gifted Warriors. He even got the "M-V-P" chants at the free throw line that were once reserved for Rose.
Chicago's feel-good story is now in its second year running as Rose rehabs from another season-ending knee injury. The Bulls have won seven of eight and sit just a game back of Toronto for third seed in the Eastern Conference. There is little question this is the third-best team in the Eastern Conference, even without Rose and Luol Deng, who was traded in a salary dump Jan. 7, back when the Bulls were 14-18.
The Bulls turned around a foundering season in December when they hustled to sign a waived D.J. Augustin, but it's not odd that they're playing even better without Deng. It's a Bulls thing.
"The funny thing about our team is we're still growing," said Carlos Boozer, who had 15 points and 13 rebounds in 24:35. "We're still getting better, we're learning things about each other. But again, that's the makeup of our team. We just keep grinding. Whatever's in front of us, we just take on the challenge."
With back-to-back regulation 100-point games, the Bulls are still dead last in scoring in the NBA at 92.8 points per game, a tick behind 11-win Milwaukee.
But they're also the second-best defensive team, giving up just 92.3 points per game, just behind 43-win Indiana.
Some would say that's the tragedy of this team, the worst offensive team and the second-best defensive team, a morbid hybrid out of NBA mythology that can't make it out of the second round of the playoffs.
But the Bulls are the team that no one wants to meet in the playoffs, let alone the regular season. They learn from their mistakes and "follow the board."
When these two teams last met, Golden State won 102-87 behind 34 points from Curry. This time, the Bulls held Curry to five points on 2-for-10 shooting. None of the Warriors' starters scored in double figures.
"We were juiced about this game," Gibson said. "We were real pumped. We felt like we let one go out there, even with guys injured. We didn't set the right tone."
Hinrich, who was considered to be trade bait earlier in the season (Golden State traded for Steve Blake instead), was credited for being the glue to this win, leading the trapping defense on Curry.
"I thought at least we could hold [Curry] to 20, just try to make him frustrated and in the fourth quarter, try to take it over," Gibson said.
Gibson led the Bulls with 21 points in 27:26 off the bench, while Butler had 16 points in 36:35 after missing two games with a rib contusion. Mike Dunleavy added 15.
The Bulls worry a lot about the things coaches worry about, because coach Tom Thibodeau worries about everything. That's why the Bulls look to him after every basket they give up. That's why he's screaming like a maniac with his starters in with five minutes left in a 28-point game.
"We're really strict in here," Gibson said. "We really care about winning. We really care about getting guys better. Look at everybody's development."
Last year, Chicago fell in love with the 45-win Bulls, especially down the stretch when they beat the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs and stole the first game of the Miami Heat series.
Is this team better? Gibson thinks so. The Bulls are a little deeper, and as of now, healthier. Gibson has improved, and Noah has never played better. While dreams of a title were vanquished when Rose tore his medial meniscus in Portland in November, Chicago is operating under the idea that it will write its own ending.
"I think last year we had some special moments, the first round, winning Game 7 on the road, winning Game 1 in Miami," Noah said. "Winning that game, that was a great three-day span. I still want more, though. I want more. All those experiences in the playoffs, those are things that I'll never take for granted."
During last season's second half and playoff run, Butler turned into the runaway fan favorite and was looked at as the missing two guard.
Butler got off to a slow start this season because of injuries, but his offense has picked up of late as he's found ways to score. He hit all three of his field goal attempts and a pair of free throws in the Bulls' big second quarter Wednesday.
"It's good whenever you have Jimmy healthy," Gibson said. "He's one of those players, kind of like a Dwyane Wade. They hit the deck a lot, hit the floor a lot. I keep trying to tell him, just try to stay off the floor, take care of your body. He's learning but he's still hard-headed."
Butler aside, it would still be nice if the Bulls added a player to help scoring this season, just to make things interesting. There are shooters out there after the buyout surge to take rookie Tony Snell's minutes, or give Butler and Dunleavy a little more rest.
The ideal would be to add Danny Granger, the former All-Star who was traded by Indiana and bought out by fully tanked Philadelphia on Wednesday. He's only played 29 games after missing all but five games last season with knee troubles. But he says he's healthy now. Still, the odds are he goes to a contender such as the Clippers, or maybe San Antonio.
Are the Bulls a scorer away from being a contender? Yes, but it's Rose that they're missing, not Granger. The big Rose news Wednesday was that he's off the anti-gravity treadmill and is now battling gravity by running on his own.
It's not just that the Bulls miss Rose. He's missing out on another special team, another year of Noah and Gibson in their primes. Cruel, isn't it?
The Bulls have 25 games left and, even with a tougher schedule, should match or better last year's 45 wins in a much-weaker Eastern Conference.
They prepare like a title team and defend like a title team, and while no one thinks that's what they are, everyone is better for watching a team that plays like there's no ceiling.
"The ultimate goal is to win a championship," Noah said. "I really believe that in my heart, one day our time will come."
Until then, Noah will live every day like it's Game 7, iced up and ready to spread the love.
Bulls play like contenders even if loss of Derrick Rose says they aren't