Posted May 21 2011 9:59AM
DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Mentally tough. Joakim Noah.
Using them in the same paragraph is tough enough, never mind the same sentence.
That's how it used to be with Noah, anyway, a perception that no longer fits for the Chicago Bulls' center. The transformation from Florida Gators flake to serious-and-driven professional basketball player is nearly complete, at the end of what essentially has been a four-year education in the NBA game.
Noah might have been tougher, maybe even had to be, than folks realized to put up with the razzing and doubting he got as a Bulls rookie in 2007-08 for his ways on and off the court. But that was nothing compared to the steely resolve he has now, after a "senior year" as coach Tom Thibodeau's prized pupil, heading toward Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat Sunday.
Derrick Rose is Chicago's and the NBA's Most Valuable Player. But it was Noah whom Thibodeau took under his wing last summer, Noah whom Thibodeau pushed and prodded and drilled and rebounded for in August, in September, in the afternoon, at night. It got to the point where Noah couldn't even tiptoe out of the Berto Center practice facility after a simple lifting session without his new coach perking up, like a sentry dog, to drag him onto the court for more post moves.
Noah will shake his head and wince over the memory now. But the fact is, he and Rose -- at center and point guard -- remain the two positions where Chicago has a decided personnel advantage over Miami. And if their stocky Bulls head coach could inhabit any one of his players in a game -- in the style of that John Malkovich movie a few years back -- it would be the wild-haired, 6-foot-11 Noah. High energy, defensive minded, a player who burns so hot that his teammates warm themselves off him in the huddles.
"That's what's made the whole year, is his engine," Bulls forward Carlos Boozer said recently. "A 7-foot guy with an engine like that? You don't get 7-foot guys like that with his engine. It makes our team special."
There was a time, no so long ago, when Noah was all engine, no brakes, shaky steering wheel. But that largely has been fixed, thanks to the natural maturation process, to a sense of ownership and responsibility in what he and the Bulls are trying to accomplish and to this long, intense season under Thibodeau.
At times, he even sounds like his coach, not so much brainwashed as self-editing what used to be one of the league's freest spirits and loosest tongues.
"These are moments that will dictate what our careers are and what people remember us as," Noah said after Chicago's practice Friday. "These are the biggest games of our lives. Everybody is playing like it."
Noah absolutely played like it in the series opener, his 14 rebounds and eight offensive boards driving Chicago's greatest advantage that night over the Heat (19 offensive rebounds, 31 second-chance points). "[His] effort exceeded ours," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said that night. "And that's what this series is about: endurance, mental and physical endurance. Who can sustain their game more consistently?"
Noah saw that in Game 2. He again scored nine points. He even had an end-to-end, rebound-and-fast break rush reminiscent of his highlight play from Game 6 in 2009 against Boston (minus Paul Pierce in chase). But Noah grabbed just eight boards in the Bulls' 85-75 loss -- two fewer than LeBron James, one fewer than Dwyane Wade, one more than Miami sub Mike Miller.
Noah's work on Chris Bosh was more noticeable, with the Heat power forward slipping from 30 points in Game 1 to 10 on Wednesday. But Noah has and takes more defensive responsibility than that. A one-on-one standoff or victory means nothing.
"We got punched in the mouth the last game," Noah said. "We have to get up and respond."
Noah has been bloodied and battered a few times this season. There was the thumb and hand surgery that gouged 30 games from the middle of his season, endurable only because Chicago went 22-8 in his absence. There was the protracted adjustment to playing alongside Carlos Boozer that Noah's absence, and Boozer's own 23 games lost to injuries, necessitated (one could say they're still not fully in sync).
There was the unexpected anger and criticism from Indiana's Danny Granger near the end of the first round, claims that Noah was "dirty" and "cowardly" in his play after Pacers big men Jeff Foster and Josh McRoberts took most of the on-court heat for rough stuff.
Against Atlanta, it was squaring off against a friend and former college teammate, Al Horford, for six bruising games. And eventually getting the better of someone who had won the early battles of their pro careers.
Now it is the challenge of going back to Florida for Games 3 and 4, knowing that the homecourt advantage the Bulls had pushed so hard for is gone, coping with another Florida product, Udonis Haslem, who was so pivotal in Game 2 right in Noah's wheelhouse (rebounding, defense).
If ever there was a time for Noah and mental toughness to show up in the same sentence, this is it.
"I think one of our strengths is, we've dealt with a lot of adversity this year," Noah told me in a hallway at the Berto Center, away from the cameras and lights. "When you're a group that goes through a lot of things, it makes you mentally tough.
"It's easy when things are going well. That's not going through the fire. We've gone through a lot of things already. That's exciting."
The Bulls figure to go through much more before they are through. The atmosphere at AmericanAirlines Arena, the relentess threats of James, Wade and Bosh, the help he can provide offensively as a passer and a release for Rose against double-teams, the prospect of advancing to the Finals or having all that they worked for end in the next week or so ... there is so much going on that Noah sounds as if he would welcome a set of blinders.
"As players sometimes, if you start getting caught up in things like that, it throws you off your game," Noah said. "You've got to control what you can control. There's already so much going on. Thibs always talks about an intensity coming from your work ethic and your concentration -- that's what real intensity is.
"Sometimes, I think that's something I have to do a lot better out there. I work hard and I play hard, but sometimes I need to do a better job of concentrating on whatever we have to do. Whether it's a defensive strategy or a screen on offense, maybe a play breaks down and you have to set a flair or something like that.
"It's one of those things. When there's 25,000 people in there and there's two minutes left in a big game, you have to be ... there."
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