CHICAGO — The difference in Joakim Noah‘s game on Thursday night was clear to Jimmy Butler. After failing to provide much of a spark for the first five games of the season in his new role off the bench, Noah played with a familiar fire in a 104-98 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“The lights, man,” Butler said. “Jo loves the lights. When it’s time to play your best, bet that Jo’s going to bring his best effort.”
It wasn’t so much that Noah had four points, seven rebounds and four assists in 26 minutes — it was the way in which he came to accumulate those stats that caught people’s attention. He was moving up and down the court well and showing off that passion that has been missing from his game at times this season. Noah is at his best when he is pounding his chest and exhorting the crowd to get loud. He thrives off the emotion of others and enjoys the spotlight provided by being on a basketball court.
When asked if this was the best game he had played this season, the emotional big man simply said, “Uh, sure.”
With his former coach at the University of Florida, Billy Donovan, manning the sidelines for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Noah had been excited about this matchup for a while. The interesting part about his comments after the game was that he said it wasn’t Donovan’s presence that got him going as much as it was the terrible defensive effort that the Bulls showed in a 130-105 loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday night.
“It was alarming,” Noah said. “What happened in Charlotte was alarming.”
As a leader of the Bulls, Noah appeared to take it personally that his team had played so poorly on his watch. Along with Butler, Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose, Noah helped set a hard-working tone for the Bulls that helped them prevail. The old guard of Fred Hoiberg’s new group were the difference in this game, with Noah leading the way with a game-high plus-16.
“I was cursing guys out,” Gibson said of the Bulls’ practice demeanor after the Charlotte loss. “Jo was cursing guys out. Derrick was cursing guys out. It was good to have guys challenging each other.”
Noah still is adjusting to his new role off the bench, but it was Donovan who said before the game his former center would do whatever he could to help his team win.
“He’s a team guy,” Donovan said. “So I think whatever Fred needs him to do, he’s going to be the kind of guy that’s going to do it. He’ll do whatever is asked of him and that’s the one thing I say about him being a teammate — it’s never ever about him, it’s always about what he can do to help his team.”
Maybe that’s why when it was suggested to Noah by reporters after the game he needed to pump up his own game after Thursday night’s win, he demurred.
“I don’t like that [stuff],” he said. “That’s not me.”
What is for Noah is the ability to affect a game by playing like Jo again. He accomplished that against the Thunder.
“Jo’s a huge energy guy,” Butler said. “He does all the little things for us, making all the right plays. And he doesn’t get enough credit for what he brings to this team. Without Jo, we wouldn’t be the team that we are. He’s an incredible leader, he plays extremely hard and he’s always bringing his teammates up, man. Without that guy, we couldn’t have done what we did tonight.”