'He's the spirit of their team'

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CHICAGO -- He has become, in the continued absence of Derrick Rose, not just the face of the Chicago Bulls but their personality -- as contentious as he is skilled and as theatric as he is unselfish.

Folks frowned when Steve Kerr, calling a game on television recently, said Joakim Noah is one of the 10 best players in the NBA right now. But with every performance like Sunday's against the New York Knicks, it's an increasingly easier case to make.

And it is his newfound impact on the offensive end, without being anything remotely close to a great scorer, that has been at the forefront of the Bulls ascending to third place in the Eastern Conference by winning nine of 10, including the trashing of the Knicks. It has been more than 35 years since an NBA center handed out 14 assists in a game as Noah did Sunday. And if that's not enough, he scored 13 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, blocked two shots and barked orders from the high-post like some hardwood Peyton Manning.

You know the last center to record a 14-assist game? No, not Vlade Divac. No, not Bill Walton. Sam Lacey is the correct answer. That's a generation-and-a-half of basketball ago.

Number of times a Bulls center has had 14 assists in a game before Sunday? None. Never happened. Remember, we're talking about the 30th-ranked team in points scored, and there are only 30 teams in the NBA.

It's not like the Bulls have had some roster overhaul in recent weeks. And it's not fair to say, "Oh, it's just the Knicks," even though the Knicks are truly stinky right now, have lost 14 of 16 games and are too far out of the playoff picture to even discuss the possibility of a postseason appearance. Hell, the Bulls scored only 70 points against the Sacramento Kings a few weeks ago and had seven 24-second violations just a week ago in Miami.

No, there's a fundamental difference in what the Bulls are doing now (except against the Heat):

They're handing the ball to Noah at the top of the circle and he's going "Omah-HA!" on opposing defenses. On the dribble handoffs with the elbow extended, Noah sets massive screens and Mike Dunleavy, Kirk Hinrich, D.J. Augustin and Jimmy Butler have learned to squeeze off shots in the space created by Noah.

If defenders come over the top, Noah has the skill, timing, instinct and creativity to hit those same players cutting to the basket.

If his own man sloughs back, Noah has begun doing the only thing the ball handler can do to make the defense pay: shoot.

As Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game Sunday, "Our guys know if you cut and you're open, you're going to get it. So they don't stand." When asked why the Bulls were so effective and efficient offensively, beginning with a 16-1 lead that drained any drama from the proceedings, the Knicks' Carmelo Anthony said of Noah, "He was the quarterback out there, making plays for everybody. He's the spirit of their team." Noah, as a good playmaker should do, dished praised to his coach, which might surprise people who insist Thibodeau isn't even paying attention to offense.

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