Emotional Joakim Noah leads Bulls

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.

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