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.
He's not the only Chicago player going well, of course. Much will be made, and should be, of the way Jimmy Butler played LeBron Sunday. Butler's 16 points, 11 rebounds and 4 steals (including the key swipe from LeBron that allowed the game to go into overtime) would have been acceptable enough in any context. But even more impressive was Butler "forcing" LeBron into 8-for-23 shooting. It speaks to the greatness of the best player in the NBA when he nearly comes up with a triple-double (17 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists), yet one of the critical storylines is what great defense somebody played on him. Nonetheless, LeBron had zero foul shots in a game for the first time since December of 2009, which speaks either to a rare tentative afternoon for LeBron or Butler doing something that should be credited. Would LeBron settle for so many jump shots in a playoff game against the Bulls? No chance. Would Butler be whistled for only one foul (as he was Sunday) in a playoff game against LeBron? Again, no chance.
But Butler -- and the Bulls knew this the night they drafted him -- is an Adonis of an athlete himself with a streak of fearlessness. He matriculated at Marquette, in fact, valuing the physical and mental toughness of another Marquette alumnus, Dwyane Wade. As coach Tom Thibodeau said afterward, "The thing about Jimmy is his demeanor. He's fierce."
Butler isn't a horn-tooter, but asked about his own approach to dealing with LeBron, Butler said, as if it's a philosophy, "I don't back down ... I was playing defense the way I know how to play defense. It's effort."
The night Butler was drafted by the Bulls at the end of the first round in 2011, he talked about understanding that a team with stars like Rose and Deng and Noah needed a kid like him to want to help harass LeBron and D-Wade. For three seasons the Bulls liked the way the taller and angular Deng guarded LeBron, but now the job has fallen primarily to Butler, and James was quick to compliment Butler on the steal that sent the game into OT.
There's other stuff working in the Bulls' favor, too. D.J. Augustin, disregarding a two-game shooting slump, has become as close as the Bulls are going to get to the Robinson/Belinelli combo of last season. Augustin hit 8 of 13 shots against Miami and scored a team-high 22 points, and -- this is going to sound blasphemous, but so be it -- does one thing better than Rose did against Miami: Augustin keeps his dribble alive and makes the Heat pay as often as not for that high trap on the point guard.
Something else that can't be overlooked: Taj Gibson is one of the three most improved players in the NBA, if not the most improved.
But this is mostly, again, about Noah, who has become the emotional team leader he didn't have to be with Rose and Deng on the floor and who has expanded his game to such a degree that his coach, in midseason, changed the offense to flow through a center playing on the high post. Noah will never impact the game physically like a healthy Bill Walton, but Noah's understanding of the game and how to utilize teammates is Walton-esque. Despite handling the ball on every possession he's on the floor, Noah committed just one turnover in 42 minutes against Miami's defense. On top of the great plays is his ability to exhort his teammates in ways that no longer seem akin to antics. The intensity, for a team playing without the guys who everyone knew were the two best players on the team, Rose and Deng, is absolutely necessary for the Bulls to win games against the likes of Miami, even if it's just Noah gesturing to his father at the end of a Bulls flurry. Asked to name any team in his basketball life that inspired this kind of emotion in him, Noah thought long before deciding on the Kentucky Wildcats, back when he was leading the Florida Gators to a pair of NCAA championships. The games at Rupp Arena rallied something in him close to this. Of course, he and the Gators had what Kentucky wanted back then, a condition not lost on Noah now.
See, there's something a little bittersweet in these inspired victories over good teams like Miami and San Antonio and Dallas, all of whom the Bulls have beaten in their recent run. Noah didn't see, coming into March, a new offense resulting from another short-handed effort. He envisioned Rose and Deng healthy, leading the way, in fact. It's killing Noah to have to bring down his expectations, even if just a little, because this was the season -- in his mind and many others' -- that the Bulls were going after Miami when it counted most, the postseason. (Miami, meanwhile, left the building worried about a three-game losing streak, spreading compliments about the Bulls, including Noah, and unfazed about the particular topic of being annoyed by everything Chicago.)
Noah knows outside Chicago the refrain following Sunday's win over Miami will be: "But they can't beat 'em in May." And it's why he said afterward, referring to Rose's absence, "I can't wait until the little homey comes back. I know we have another level when that boy comes back. We're hungry, man. We're a hungry group. And that's what I want. We're going for one thing: that's a championship. One day I want to party in Chicago. I want to see what that feels like one day."
For now, he'll have to settle for increased talk about being on the short list of MVPs, of his father making a rare trip to Chicago to see him play, and of the sheer childlike satisfaction one gets from beating a team of guys you simply don't like. "We understand we can't go around them, we've got to go through them," Noah said of Miami, understanding better than anyone in his audience that small battles won are to be savored, but that an NBA King isn't dethroned in March.