So all it took for the Bulls to break out of their slump was an historic performance by Joakim Noah.
That and a visit to the United Center by a team struggling even more than the Bulls have been.
In case you missed it, the Sixers aren’t known as “the Sixers” anymore. They’ve been rechristened “the struggling Sixers.” Their most recent defeat — which was their sixth straight by the way — was a 98-84 home loss to an Orlando Magic team that had lost 28 of its last 32 games.
Not surprisingly, Philly coach Doug Collins lost it.
Said Collins: ”I sure didn’t see this effort coming. I thought we played incredibly hard against Miami. I thought we played incredibly hard in New York on Sunday. And this is mind-numbing to me. We went up 29-20, and from that point on, I couldn’t even tell you what occurred.”
“I’m disappointed, I really am. There was so much this season that we were looking forward to. But it just seems like every time we turn around, it’s been something else. ”
“I told you, I did not think our guys prepared themselves during the [All-Star] break to come back to play.”
“Sometimes you’ve got to help yourself. Youth is a very blaming thing. … I usually go to them. And after a while, the talk gets old. It just does — at some point in time, you’ve just got to play. They say it’s a players’ league. Well then take ownership. That’s all I’m asking — take ownership of what you’re putting out there.”
“We are a team that the least, little change affects us. All of the sudden the starting lineup changes again — we have guys that don’t deal well with that. We’re not a team that rolls with it that easily.”
“I don’t want you to feel like I’m up here blaming. I don’t want you to think I’m making excuses. That’s not what this is about. … I’m a guy who when I have coached, I’ve always been able to find some answers. And I have not been able to find answers, and from my standpoint that is very disappointing, because I’m paid to do that.”
“I wish I knew [why we're struggling]. I really do. I’m sitting there — I gave my body to this franchise. I was never booed as a player, never. I ran through my sneakers. … There cannot be a game where you just go out and don’t put your heart and soul into the game. We had an off-day, we’ve been on the All-Star break — there’s no reason for that, none.”
You can read about Collins’ rant here and here, but this is part of the Doug Collins Coaching Life Cycle: Invigorate a team, slowly wear them down with his taskmaster ways, and then eventually start losing his players as he loses his mind. It happened here in Chicago. Happened in Detroit and Washington. Now it’s happening in Philadelphia.
At any rate, when NBA coaches go on post-game rant-a-paloozas in which they start questioning their players desire and effort, it’s usually a sign of both frustration and desperation. The coach is trying to save his team’s season and his job…even though you get the sense both are essentially toast. But, at the very least, you can usually expect a little bump up in intensity for a game or two after said rant.
To wit: the Sixers played a somewhat more spirited game, especially Spencer Hawes (20 points, 15 rebounds, 2 blocks) and Jrue Holiday (22 points, 10-for-19).
But nobody could match Noah’s energy.
Check out his stat line: 23 points, 8-for-12 from the field, 7-for-9 from the line, 21 rebounds, 11 blocked shots, 3 steals, 1 assist.
Can you believe that stiff had only 1 assist?
Seriously, though, those are big-time video game numbers. And very few players in have matched what Noah did last night. This season or ever.
Noah became only the fourth player in the last 25 seasons to have a 20-point, 20-rebound, 10-block game, and only the sixth player on record to achieve that feat, with Elvin Hayes, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and Shawn “One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others” Bradley.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Noah became the first NBA player ever to record at least 20 points, 20 rebounds, 10 blocks and shoot at least 65 percent from the field in a single game. Of course, blocked shots didn’t become an official stat until the 1973-74 season…so I’m guessing Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell might have matched those numbers at some point. But we’ll never know.
Naturally, the post-game kudos were gushing.
Said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau: “He was spectacular. His will from the start of the game until the end was just incredible. He was everywhere — blocked shots, switching, guarding everyone. Big-time multiple efforts.”
Carlos Boozer — who had 21 points and 12 rebounds himself — added: ”He was amazing, man. Joakim put up a legendary night. I’ve never played with a player with them kind of stats before. And the serious thing about it [is] we needed every one of them. Every rebound, every basket, every free throw, every block, every assist, he was amazing tonight, man.”
Even Collins was impressed: ”Noah is so lively and he’s so active and he’s just on the move all the time. If you don’t get your body on him, he’s just going to be nightmares around the rim. He’s got a great motor.”
Here’s the thing. If you’ve watched Noah throughout his career — and I’ve seen nearly every game he’s ever played — then you can tell his foot woes aren’t behind him. The plantar fasciitis is clearly bothering him. His mobility and lift are both limited right now. Which makes what he did last night even more impressive. It was all about basketball IQ, timing, and putting himself in the right place at the right times.
And boy did the Bulls need it.
Rose is still out…and doubts regarding his mental state and questions about what his confusing status is doing to the team are starting to creep up. Taj Gibson is still recovering from a knee sprain. Rip Hamilton missed the game due to back spasms. And poor Luol Deng nearly lost a handful of teeth.
It’s a rough time in Bulls Land.
Despite Noah’s brilliance, Chicago did not play a brilliant game. The Bulls shot a miserable 38 percent and missed 11 of their 14 three-point attempts. Despite the job Noah and Boozer did on the boards, the Bulls only won the rebounding battle by five boards (53-48), although the Bulls did turn their 15-12 advantage in offensive rebounds into a 17-10 edge in second-chance points.
Marco Belinelli (3-for-10 from the field and 0-f0r-3 on threes) and Nate Robinson (3-for-11) were off-target all night, and Kirk Hinrich (5-for-15 and 1-for-5 on threes) and Deng (5-for-14 and 0-f0r-2 on threes) weren’t much better. The Bulls were +12 on free throw attempts and the Sixers missed nine of their attempts…which helped.
Philly was virtually always in striking distance.
Said Collins: ”We were very competitive. The Bulls front line was tremendous … Between Noah and Boozer they had 44 points and 33 rebounds and Noah’s 11 blocks and those guys were 18 for 21 from the foul line. That ended up being the difference in the game.”
Added Hawes: ”If we made more shots, we would have won. On defense we played well enough, they just made more plays than we did.”
So there were some justifications and a few sour grapes on the other end…but there might have been a kernel of truth in between the lines. It required a truly Herculean effort by Noah to hold off a dispirited, down-tempo band that was very publicly blasted by their own coach this week. This is worrisome because the road ahead is ugly. Check out Chicago’s next 12 games:
@ Indiana Pacers
@ San Antonio Spurs
@ Los Angeles Lakers
@ Sacramento Kings
@ Golden State Warriors
Portland Trail Blazers
@ Minnesota Timberwolves
Unless Noah has several more legendary performances left in him, I could see the Bulls losing nine of these games. And although that wouldn’t necessarily knock them out of the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference…it would come pretty close.
The Bulls still have a top five defense but they’re frighteningly close to having a bottom five offense. The only teams below the Bulls in Offensive Efficiency are Orlando (16-42), Philadelphia (22-34), Phoenix (20-39), Charlotte (13-44) and Washington (18-38). The best of those teams is 12 games below .500.
This is where hard realities are going to set in. A few weeks ago, the Bulls had the third best record in their conference. Now they’re struggling to compete against bad teams and getting blown out by better ones. Rose probably isn’t coming back soon or at all.
The fight to hang on has just begun.