The conversation has suddenly shifted from whom the Bulls are missing in the playoffs to whom the Bulls are bringing to the next round. And really, when you think about it, how could anyone not notice Joakim Noah?
He's a seven-footer with a ponytail who dresses provocatively and tends to yell a lot, sometimes at no one in particular, just for the hell of it. He's busy and he's noisy, and then the volume gets turned way up when he's on the floor.
Over the last week, Noah announced his arrival in these NBA playoffs with the subtlety of a thunderstorm. His energy and leadership and passion pushed the depleted Bulls beyond the first round and into an expected grudge match with Miami. It was one of the finest stretches of his career, all things considered, punctuated by a gutsy Game 7 in Brooklyn. He played that entire series with plantar fasciitis, and if you have no idea what that feels like, just place a marble underneath your foot inside your sneaker and run a couple of laps. Pack plenty of aspirin.
And so, if Derrick Rose confines himself once again to his pre-game warm-up ritual and nothing more, the Heat's main focus will be toward stopping a hyper big man with the ugliest jumper in basketball who never takes a play off. Again: How could you miss Noah?
"He's a handful," admitted Chris Bosh.
If Game 7s tell you much about players, then Noah was worth a filibuster. The day before, he said the Bulls wouldn't lose. And this was while Kirk Hinrich limped and couldn't play and Luol Deng was in the hospital emergency room and shortly after Nate Robinson lost his lunch on the Bulls bench. In that sense, Noah really didn't have much to lose by being so confident; had they lost, nobody would bother to remember the guarantee anyway, since the odds were steep against Chicago. But what if the Bulls won and Noah was a beast? Well, then everyone would eat it up. And that's exactly what happened Saturday, with Noah scoring 24 points with 14 rebounds and six blocks in 41 painful but satisfying minutes. And he had enough electricity left for a primal yell as he walked off the court.
"He didn't just have a good game," said the Nets' now ex-coach, P.J. Carlesimo, "he had a magnificent game."
"Jo played his best game at the right time," said Robinson.
"Before the series, I didn't know if I could play," Noah said. "I could barely walk."
And because Noah loves being Noah, he couldn't resist when the topic turned to Miami.
"We'll be ready," he said. With a respectful but detectable smirk.
This is the same player who twice rubbed LeBron James and the Heat the wrong way. A few years ago, he shouted insults toward LeBron from the Bulls bench, causing LeBron to uncharacteristically confront another player and trade shots with Noah. And then Noah poked fun at Miami's tendency to be theatrical, calling the Heat "Hollywood as hell" and feeding what was then an almost universal hatred of Miami.
None of this is surprising about Noah. He was the only person who didn't wear a suit to the White House when the Florida Gators were honored for winning back-to-back NCAA titles. He's free-spirited and fun loving without the destructive tendencies of the last great Bulls rebounder, Dennis Rodman. The son of tennis great Yannick Noah and a Miss Sweden, Noah wears his flamboyance proudly, but on the floor he's strictly and conservatively blue collar. That's what endears him to Bulls fans, and to his peers. You'd be pressed to find anyone who doesn't admire the way Noah is wired.
"My whole philosophy is to work hard, do what I can to win," he said. "That's all I'm about."
Well, not really. But point made. Without Rose this season, Noah was clearly the MVP of the Bulls and became an All-Star. That, in itself, is revealing: Noah is one of the few players who struggles to create his own shot, yet can impact a game anyway. His passing from the post is instinctive and silently effective. He creates shots for Carlos Boozer and teammates cutting toward the rim. He averaged 11.1 rebounds and roughly two blocks, both career highs. Best of all for Chicago, he's the centerpiece of Tom Thibodeau's aggressive and smart defense, perhaps the best in basketball.
Both Noah and his jumper are something to behold. About the technique: Like Noah, it's exotic. And that's being kind. No one ever bothered to correct his form or release in high school and Noah, who drew greater satisfaction by doing other things anyway, didn't bother changing it. The ball spins sideways and then stops rotating completely once it arrives at the basket. At first, the Bulls didn't bother running many plays for Noah. But this season, he actually improved his free throw shooting and gained enough confidence to pick-and-pop as well as pick and roll. He'll take the 15-footer if left open.
But enough about the shot. It is what it is. Same for Noah, who knows his limitations but also exploits what makes him valuable.
"I take whatever the defense gives me," he said. "I'm an opportunistic basketball player. I do what I have to do."
The All-Star appearance, the leadership role he accepted this season and the Game 7 performance will make him a mainstream guy against Miami. Two years ago when these teams met in the Eastern Conference finals, Noah was a backup singer to Rose. Now, he's holding the mic. His game really hasn't changed much since then, but his role is now swole, you might say. If his foot cooperates, Noah will turn this series into a physical affair.
"We're a team of fighters," he said. "We keep getting punched in the face but we fight back."
The Bulls must take their cue and personality from Noah, because Rose has left them with no choice. Until his head and body are right again, and who knows when that'll be the case, the Bulls are totally about defense, grind and guts. Suddenly, they're about what Noah is about. They're his team, following his style and his personality. After watching Noah in Game 7, you don't think Deng will crawl out of his hospital bed? You don't think Hinrich will crawl on the court if necessary? You don't think Rose will ... well, we'll check back on that one.
The Bulls' only chance against the sleek Ferrari known as the Heat is to become the banana in the tailpipe. Be a pest. Get physical, as they did two months ago when LeBron accused Hinrich and others of doing things that weren't "basketball plays." Get under the Heat's skin the way a tattoo artist got under Chris "Birdman" Andersen's more than once.
And above all? Be noticed.
"We'll show up," Noah said.