Originally Published: March 13, 2014

Behind Noah's Lead, Bulls Mean Business

By Shams Charania | Special to ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- Out of the corner of his eye and beyond the hoard cramped around him, Joakim Noah caught a bewildered teammate approaching a door into the showers. Everyone surrounding Noah had blocked Taj Gibson's entrance, and Noah swiftly started parting a path, physically removing those obstructing a way in, and extended his arms to open the door. "I got you, Taj," Noah said softly.

Noah seems to solve every issue inside the Chicago Bulls' locker room, and Tom Thibodeau decodes every team outside it. A decade ago, Noah was just a benevolent, lanky 19-year-old who rose in the ranks with Dwight Howard -- an unorthodox talent facing a projected and eventual No. 1 draft pick in a high school All-Star game at the United Center.

All these years later, "M-V-P" chants serenaded Noah in the arena Thursday night, raucous responses to a stifling defensive lock on Howard and another near triple-double. Across 13 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in the Bulls' 111-87 win over the Houston Rockets, he unraveled Howard into a technical foul, forced him into turnover after turnover -- two offensive fouls, two traveling violations and two strip-aways on a most powerful grip.

Noah
Ray Amati/NBAE/Getty ImagesJoakim Noah finished one assist shy of a triple-double in Chicago's blowout win over Houston.

For everyone around the NBA failing to truly believe in Noah's discomfort about receiving MVP consideration, teammates promise its legitimacy, promise it is no public relations strategy. They cite his irritation when the cries first originated out of the crowd during Chicago's win over Miami on Sunday, when Noah essentially told them: "This isn't for me."

"Joakim does hate the chants, but he deserves them," said Bulls guard D.J. Augustin. "He does everything for this team. He's a very humble guy and he's all about the team."

Between Derrick Rose's second major knee injury and the trade of Luol Deng, these Bulls had begun to deconstruct and lose their way. Thibodeau's pleads sounded increasingly fictitious, and turbulence surrounded his job status, where Noah's future stood and when the organization would amnesty Carlos Boozer.

One truth existed: The Bulls couldn't get over their depleted state until Noah did.

As it turned out, Augustin was a gem of a signing, the constant movement and versatile shooting of Mike Dunleavy has brought Chicago elements of Kyle Korver and Marco Belinelli, and Thibodeau never wavered in his pressure.

The superstar they need in order to threaten an Eastern Conference contender, Rose, remains on the bench in a suit, and so now the loudest ovations here come to Noah.

His energy's infectious, pointing toward the very last person seated below the rafters. As Jimmy Butler described Noah, "Point-center, defends all five positions -- 1 through 5. How can you beat that?"

"It's special to play in front of these fans," Noah said, "And I get a kick out of it."

Augustin had been inside some mired team meetings over six seasons, a career resurrected under Thibodeau and among a cast that trusted his ability. As a free agent in December, he passed over two other NBA teams before signing with the Bulls and joining an accepting locker room.

With Noah, teammates have witnessed no thoughts about accolades and contract bonuses -- but rather, measures to strengthen confidence and lead huddles.

"On this team, it doesn't take a team meeting," Augustin said. "Since I've been here, we haven't had one. We've been focused and believe we can beat any team on any night."

After Rockets coach Kevin McHale declared Noah the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year, a lack of energy and disoriented performances -- only three made shots in 18 attempts from James Harden and Chandler Parsons combined -- left the coach stunned.

Through it all, Noah had stood his ground and absorbed Howard's body blows on the Rockets' post ups. He worked the officials, worked the angles.

"Don't do that, man. Don't do that," he would tell an official when Howard drew defensive fouls that had actually sent Noah dropping to the floor.

Out of nowhere, a team's resolve and a coach's brilliance place the Bulls into strong contention for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and possibly into the East's third seed. When they had the look of a team spiraling to a lottery pick, Noah would insist: Stop taking pity. All along, Noah himself had to come to grips with this first. Without Rose and Deng, Thibodeau rides Noah the hardest.

They had grown up together, Noah said of Howard late Thursday.

And a decade later, the gap between them has never been so small.

Dimes past: Feb. 20 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | March 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12

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