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Monday, April 19, 2010
Backing it up

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

As the Moon Shots -- I mean the James Gang -- finished off the Bulls on Monday night, the Q's crowd serenaded Joakim Noah with the familiar chant, "No-ah Sucks! No-ah Sucks!" This situation had gone on all night, and if anything, it spurred Noah on. But now he had to stand there and take it.

Noah
Joakim Noah backed up his comments with 25 points and 13 rebounds in Game 2.

Noah's no LeBron James, but he was easily the second-best player on the court most of the game. He put up 25 points, 13 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks and no turnovers in a 112-102 defeat. The Bulls are down 2-0 in the best-of-seven, first-round series, which goes back to Chicago on Thursday. Noah showed last season that he was a legit NBA big man, but now he's proving that he can back up his bluster against any team.

"Noah is one of the smartest guys in the NBA," TNT's Charles Barkley gushed at halftime. "He makes passes other big guys can't make."

A little hyperbole, but maybe Barkley was sticking up for a fellow Cleveland basher. (Remember Barkley's 1996 pre-Olympic exhibition fight in the Flats?)

Noah, who was despised more than an NCAA investigator by SEC crowds while at Florida, was biting his lip as the fans booed him, bothered by the Bulls' double-digit deficit in the waning moments.

For a competitor who wants to win even more than he wants to party, he was hurting. Because this was a game the Bulls could have stolen, in theory, if James didn't take over down the stretch. They answered everything Cleveland threw at them through three quarters, outscoring the Cavs in the second and third.

But LeBron showed again why he will be a nearly unanimous MVP winner. He scored 11 straight in the fourth, turning a three-point game with 4 1/2 minutes to go into a comfortable win. He dropped 40 overall, on 16-for-23 shooting, and added eight rebounds and eight assists in a typically Jamesian line.

And while he didn't get a stellar performance from his supporting cast, Jamario Moon hit 4 of 5 3-pointers. By contrast, the Bulls hit just 4-of-13 from downtown. A few jumpers would have went a long way.

Did someone say downtown? Noah earned the abuse from the Cleveland fans for ripping the heart of the city for being boring. Seriously, this was national news. It sounds more like an Onion headline.

Really, Cleveland? That's what makes you mad? That would be like the city of Yuma, Ariz., being mad at Noah for calling it too hot.

The guy's got a point. Especially when you consider Noah's view of Cleveland is skewed by being marooned in downtown, where the viral sensation "Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video," parts one and two, were filmed. You know, the ones that note the "economy's based on LeBron James."

I guess Noah got bored after touring "both of our buildings," as the spoof song's narrator brags. You have to laugh at Cleveland's problem, or else you'd cry. Cleveland had an urban revival in the '90s after Jacobs Field and Gund Arena were built side-by-side, and the nearby Flats were booming. But those days are over. Try finding a place to eat lunch down there on a weekend. And, oh yeah, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is overrated.

Maybe if Noah went shopping at tony Beachwood Place or partied in Lakewood or visited any number of nice suburbs, he would have had more of an appreciation for the area. My friend Matt has a really nice pool in the suburbs. I could've given Noah the address.

But is anyone surprised a world traveler who grew up in France and New York, and gets photographed on topless beaches with beautiful women, wasn't thrilled with his nightlife prospects?

"At least Shaq likes it here," Matt with the pool texted me.

James likes it too. The King built a palace in his hometown of Akron, complete with a casino and recording studio. If he leaves Cleveland, I'll move to Canton. And since my wife gets an allergic reaction when she has to step foot in my home state, that's a bet I'm willing to make.

But Clevelanders shouldn't fret about Noah's comments or any inferiority complex they might have, as they certainly have the better basketball team.

The only time someone should reference Mistake by the Lake in this series is if Vinny Del Negro is jogging by Oak Street Beach.

The "Noah hates Cleveland" storyline was about the only national selling point to this one-sided series. I expected the Bulls to compete like they did Monday night, and I fully expect them to lose the series, hopefully taking a game or two in Chicago.

Though with the way James took over down the stretch -- smart move by Cavs coach Mike Brown giving him some rest early in the fourth, a la Michael Jordan -- it's hard to imagine the Bulls closing a game out without some above-average long-range shooting.

While Cleveland fans have the right to heckle Noah for his comments, I was surprised that some radio folk and fans were ripping Noah for his comments on the city, along with his remarks about Kevin Garnett being dirty.

Noah answered questions honestly and with a little panache. Since when is that a crime? Sometimes I can understand why athletes give such bland interviews. Anything they say can and will be used against them by people who spend 30 seconds coming up with an opinion.

LeBron James
Joakim Noah may not like Cleveland, but luckily for the city's basketball fans, LeBron James feels right at home in Northeast Ohio.

And Noah answered his critics, both at home and all over the country, with another strong effort. There's a reason he has earned the right to speak his mind, prompted or not, and that's because he can back it up.

Around this time last season, just before he sent the Bulls to a seventh game against the Boston Celtics, I wrote a column about Noah's ascendance and how he was becoming more than a guy you just love to hate.

It's good to see that a year later his personality has stayed the same, while his game continues to grow.

I'd like to see Noah get another crack at annoying northeast Ohio. If the Bulls can continue to complement their Big Two (Derrick Rose scored 23 on 10-of-24 shooting), that's a distinct possibility and reason for Chicago fans to come out in full force.

If it helps Bulls fans, I heard James hates deep-dish pizza, Manny's corned beef, reviles the Cubs AND the White Sox, and thinks the movies of John Hughes are overrated, sentimental junk. Let him hear it this week, and maybe the Bulls will go back to Cleveland to create a tourism video of their own.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.