Tough times require tough leader

CHICAGO -- Times are tough in Tom Thibodeau's basketball fiefdom.

Taj Gibson is out, Rip Hamilton is out, Luol Deng has a busted-up jaw and Nate Robinson's shot-selection chip is forever on the fritz.

As for Derrick Rose's return, well, Godot has a clearer arrival date than Rose.

Forward Lou Amundson just signed a 10-day contract and that qualifies for good news right now.

After two years living it up atop the Eastern Conference, the Bulls are angling for playoff position with the plebians and the schedule is only getting tougher.

But through all the turmoil, Thibodeau has one guy he can count on, Joakim Noah.

Well, until Noah gets injured again, or a flareup of his plantar fasciitis puts him on the bench. But let's not linger too long on the nastiness of the future. As Thibodeau would say, the biggest game is the next game.

As long as we're living in the present, let's celebrate Noah, who has single-handedly woken up the Bulls from their February slumber.

Noah thrilled the United Center with a triple-double (23 points, 21 rebounds, 11 blocks) Thursday, leading the Bulls to a win over Philadelphia.

On Saturday night, the All-Star center followed with a 21-point, 10-rebound, five-assist, four-blocked shot performance in the Bulls' 96-85 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.

Not a bad encore.

After picking up an early technical during the Bulls' sluggish start, Noah wound up playing 41:13 and hit 10 of 13 shots.

"The way he is playing is really inspiring to the rest of the team," said Thibodeau, that noted sentimentalist.

Noah is playing through plantar fasciitis pain, which he's managing with treatments, massages and, you know, playing 40+ minutes a night. He admitted it's tiring being an inspirational figure.

"Some days, it's just not right after the game, it's the next morning that's the roughest," Noah said. "I mean we got a great coach, but he doesn't understand the whole rest thing yet, I don't think. It's all good. We all want to win, so it's good."

Noah was laughing, as he often does when he tweaks Thibodeau's maniacal tendencies, but there was a lot of truth too.

Thibodeau doesn't always reward his players with rest, but he's as quick to praise them as he is to bench them. And he was raving about Noah on Saturday. With no Rose and Gibson out with a minor knee injury, he needs everything he can get out of Noah. Omer Asik isn't coming through that door.

"I think every time you see a guy make great effort plays, it not only inspires but it unites, and it makes everyone get on board with it," Thibodeau said. "Anytime you see a big-time hustle play, that's what motivates a team. Often times people talk about emotion. Well, I think emotion comes from that. I think people recognize when you see a multiple-play great effort.

"It's all the small things that lead to winning, a loose ball here, a loose ball there, a charge, a blocked shot. Often times a block will put you in the open floor. A live ball can get you an easy score. The way you're doing on the floor is the best type of leadership you can have."

While Noah thrives on showmanship on the floor, he's doing his best to reject the extra attention coming his way from the media, calling his success nothing more than "opportunity."

"Just driving harder to the basket, my teammates looking for me," he said. "I'm not really doing anything different. It's just stats, I guess."

It's more than stats, though Noah's advanced defensive numbers put him at the top of the league.

Kirk Hinrich said Noah's effort puts the onus to perform on other players.

"No question, we talk about it all the time, picking each other up, inspiring your teammates," he said. "You see guy, a teammate, playing like that, it's harder to dog, because it would make you look pretty bad."

And Carlos Boozer said when Noah is aggressive offensively, everyone benefits. Boozer had a strong game against Brooklyn Saturday with 20 points, eight rebounds and five steals.

"Big time, because most people don't expect Jo to shoot the ball," Boozer said. "But when he's aggressive and going to the hoop, he's hitting the jump shot, teams don't know what to do, because you've got five guys on the court that can put the ball in the hole. In my opinion it makes us more dangerous when he's offensively aggressive."

That makes sense, but I checked it out anyway. When Noah takes 10 or more shots, the Bulls are 22-7. When he scores 20 or more, the Bulls are 7-0. Maybe Noah should start shooting like Robinson. The most recent win put the Bulls (34-25) a half-game ahead of Brooklyn for the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference. They are three games behind Central Division leader Indiana, who the Bulls play on the road Sunday.

It's not all on Noah right now, but let's face it, the Bulls need these kind of games more often than not. Two starters are out and Rose is first-team, all-pregame as he rehabs that pesky knee.

There was rampant speculation the Bulls were distracted by the Rose news during their lousy end to February, but I don't really buy that angle. Aside from a solid January, this team has been up and down all season. What can you expect without Rose and with a thinner bench than the last two years?

But the one thing the Bulls can bring every night is effort. That's harder than one might think given the strenuous demands of the NBA, but if any player can lead by example, it's Noah.

"I try to do that every night, just play with emotion, play with passion," he said. "That's my game."

While some people think this season is a wash whether or not Rose comes back, because Miami looms so large, there is a sense of honor in playing like Noah every night. If the Bulls can follow his lead two out of every three nights, and if Noah survives his minutes, they can look back on this season with a sense of pride when it ends.

There's nothing wrong with playing to win and seeing what happens, even when it's not for a trophy at the end.