A group of media members gathered around Joakim Noah at the United Center earlier this week, hoping for the Bulls center to offer a few philosophical pearls or, short of that, anything that might fill time on newscasts or answer the insatiable appetite of social-media addicts. An “it is what it is’’ would have been gobbled up.
This was hours before the team announced that Noah would not play that night against the Hornets. The culprit was “general soreness,’’ which was unfortunate because I had already accused Colonel Mustard. Anyway, although he couldn’t play, Noah did manage to come up big when it mattered.
“I still think we’re the toughest team to beat in a seven-game series,’’ he told reporters.
Now, this is the sort of thing Noah has said before, and there are elements of truth to it. The Bulls are a pain in the butt even in small, one-game doses. Playing them seven straight times would be like using sandpaper for soap. Noah is a proud man and a big believer in whatever team he plays on. That’s how he was put together, and here’s hoping he never changes.
But … no. The Bulls are not the toughest NBA team to beat in a seven-game series right now. Not with the shaky health of the roster and certainly not with Derrick Rose’s problematic knees and fuzzy future.
There is a lot to love about these Bulls. Nikola Mirotic’s breakthrough. Pau Gasol’s scoring. Jimmy Butler’s two-way toughness. Tom Thibodeau’s coaching. Noah’s heart.
But until Rose can be counted on to play at a high level every game, the Bulls are a car with starter issues. That’s not to say that they can’t be what Noah says they are. It is to say that, after riding the Rose roller coaster for so long, you’re better off believing it when you see it.
Who are the toughest teams in a seven-game series? This is going to kill the people who view LeBron James as a Sith Lord, but the Cavaliers, for starters. In the NBA, talent is king, and Cleveland has LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Heading into the weekend’s games, they were 14-4 since the All-Star break. On Wednesday, they blew out the talented Grizzlies by 22 points. This is the time of year when James’ teams typically jell.
The Warriors are 34-2 at home. Assuming they’ll have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, it’s going to be difficult for anyone to get to a seventh game with them. You say that Golden State, with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, is only about offense? As of Friday afternoon, the Warriors were leading the league in opponents’ field-goal percentage at a paltry 42.4 percent.
I’d rather face the Bulls than the Grizzlies in a seven-game series. The idea of trying to stop Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in the paint would give me night sweats.
Before you accuse me of treason, know that I believe the Bulls are a tougher out than Atlanta, Houston, Portland, Dallas, the Clippers and Oklahoma City. But here’s that pesky proviso again – as long as Rose’s game is solid upon his return. It’s unrealistic to think that he can miss six weeks after meniscus surgery and immediately be the player he was before he left. That Derrick Rose wasn’t the MVP Derrick Rose, but he was good enough to make opponents pay attention. If he’s close to that, this can be a dangerous team.
When Noah lauds the Bulls’ toughness, he’s complimenting Thibodeau, whether he means to or not. Thibs is the kind of guy who makes players (both his and other teams’) want to scream, “Would you please give it a rest?’’ There might even be some front-office people who mumble that very phrase.
The same relentlessness can be seen on the floor — maybe not as much as previous Thibs teams have shown, but it’s still there. While talking with reporters, Noah pointed out that the Bulls’ defense isn’t where it needs to be. He’s right. It can’t be with Pau Gasol on the floor. But the potential is there to tighten the screws defensively in the playoffs.
Back to the subject of health. Noah’s knee has been an issue most of the season. Rose’s knees have been an issue much of the past three seasons. Butler recently returned after missing 11 games with an elbow injury. A lot has to go right for Noah’s pronouncement to be true.
For the moment, file it under “defiant hope.’’