There's nothing he can do to get Derrick Rose back right now, nothing he can do to reverse the subsequent trade that sent another beloved teammate, Luol Deng, to Cleveland as the Bulls prepared for the long term. But as consolation prizes go, Joakim Noah knows what he values more than anything else he can imagine: beating Miami. They all do, really, every single Bulls player. It doesn't matter to them, this storyline that they can't beat Miami four times in May. They want Miami. Some teams get a collective headache when LeBron James comes to town; the Bulls would happily send a plane for LeBron and the champs. Noah called it "playing with hate," and the Bulls ratcheted up their obsession with Miami to beat the Heat in another regular-season game, this one in OT -- just as they stopped Miami's winning streak at 27 games a year ago, just as they push and shove and annoy the champs like nobody else in the NBA.
The lasting visual from the game that didn't involve Noah had to be the sight of Jimmy Butler and LeBron, tangled on the baseline after a missed shot, kicking and flailing at each other with no real menace intended, just strength and determination. But as often happens in the games between these two, the Bulls somehow got under Miami's skin. And nobody eats at Miami quite like Noah, whose 20 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists and 5 blocked shots was another in a string of sublime performances over the past six weeks that has Noah possibly behind only LeBron James and Kevin Durant as MVP of the league.
Taj Gibson might as well have been speaking for the entire team when he said afterward, "We don't like them at all. They've got what we want. This was like a street ballgame. They're talking and we're talking. They're physical and we're physical. Could you hear Jo on the foul line? He was talking to each and every one of them, telling 'em, 'Not tonight, not here! It ain't going down like that tonight!' Jo feels how we all feel about them. ... Look, we're a blue-collar team and we take pride in leaving it out there every single night ... but we see [their] jerseys and there's so much fire ... we see everything they've got that we want ... the rings, the trophies. That's what this league is about, going after the champs."
Nobody outside the Chicago locker room is going to argue that the Bulls, without Rose and Deng, are a serious playoff threat to the two-time defending champs. Miami beat the Bulls 4-1 in the second round of the playoffs last year and that Bulls team, which included Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli, was probably better equipped to beat Miami than this season's Bulls team, which is offensively challenged in the best of times.
There's a magic in their matchup that would serve the NBA tremendously if the two were to meet in the second round of the upcoming playoffs. Or the Eastern Conference finals. And while that seemed like a Bulls fantasy six weeks ago, the Pacers' boat has looked leaky enough recently to advance the case that Chicago could take Indy in a second-round series and get to Miami. Of course, Noah's play, which includes three triple-doubles this season, has made all of this possible.