May 15, 2011, 12:43 AM EDT
Joakim Noah operates in a weird nexus of over and underrated. His actual consistent play by play work can vary greatly. He drifts in and out of plays and those nights where he simply doesn’t have it happen more often than you’d like. But when he does make an impact, he seems to shift the entire tone of the game. Al Horford, his partner from the Florida championship team, has become an All-Star, while Noah has struggled with injury and even been yanked by Thibs down the stretch a few times. But then there are those games where Noah brings it, as he did in the final two games of the Hawks series (despite Omer Asik and Taj Gibson closing out Game 5), and most notably Game 6 against the Celtics in 2009.
Entering the Conference Finals, Noah is in a prime position to put himself on the map. He can go beyond “that guy with the hair who hates Kevin Garnett” and become the swing player that helped Chicago down the mighty (and villainous, if you’re into terrible narratives) Heat. Because Joakim Noah is the best center in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Noah will be matched up with Chris Bosh defensively for most of this series so that Carlos Boozer never has to do anything resembling defending anyone with offensive capability. We saw how that worked out in the first two rounds. Noah gets the task of bodying up Chris Bosh, which is going to be a pendulum in this series. Whichever oft-questioned, toughness-doubted, franchise-abandoning power forward gets the leg up in this series will provide another offensive weapon to the two top-heavy teams. Noah’s grating, physical style will be geared to get under Bosh’s skin and force him into making bad decisions.
But let’s stop with X’s and O’s and take a look back at the Joakim Noah moment.
That was the most Joakim Noah moment ever, with the only possible exception his legendary speech following the NCAA championship (you should know the one I’m talking about; if you don’t, look it up). Those are the types of plays that define a career, and so far it has defined Noah’s. A ridiculous combination of impeccable timing, explosive energy, and raw emotion. The Bulls need those moments regularly from Noah in this series.
The Bulls aren’t as talented as the Heat. They may be better, overall, especially on the defensive end. But they aren’t as talented. They’ll need to thrive on emotion and use those types of resilient plays. Noah’s like gasoline on the Bulls’ bonfire. Without it, they’re just rubbing kindling together.
Noah’s tireless, and though he often tries to be more versatile than he actually is, he also is capable of making plays that force you to s say “I didn’t know Noah could do that” whether it’s a mid-range jumper, a sweeping hook, or some sort of gangly inside move. He yells like Boozer, only with the actual defensive prowess and effort that would justify it.
Noah’s been in Chicago through the rebuilding process. He’s basically a Rose apostle at this point. He survived a Melo trade scare. He’s a folk hero in Chicago and when/if he blocks LeBron in this series, he’ll have songs written about him and they’ll have to change the Billy Goat to the Noah. The guy who built the arc will be less famous afterwards. Noah’s been succeeding at every level in the face of doubt for years. This is his opportunity to put his big ol’ frazzy haired stamp on the league.
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