Joakim Noah isn’t real shy when it comes to ticking people off.
He’s incensed opposing players, entire cities, the NBA front office, heck, even his own teammates and coaches over the years.
It’s what Noah does. It’s what Noah has always done.
So the fact that he continued to enrage a four-time league MVP, well, call it Noah’s finest prize, especially if it works and the Bulls can go on to win the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers and their star LeBron James.
It was during the third quarter of the eventual 99-96 Game 3 Bulls win on Friday, in which Noah was called for a non-shooting foul on James, and allegedly took their already hate-hate relationship to a new level. At least that’s what James was saying.
“I’m a father with three kids,’’ James said after the game. “It got very disrespectful. I’m OK with competing against Jo. I love the competitive nature, but we should leave it there. The disrespectful words that he said to me were uncalled for.’’
James, however, felt the need to make a statement of his own. This didn’t involve any words, at least until James spun off Jimmy Butler and put Noah on a poster with the nasty one-handed dunk. James then looked at Noah as he ran up the court, having some words of his own, and drawing the technical foul for taunting.
“The best way to retaliate is by making a play,’’ James said. “That’s the only way I know how to resolve things is by making a play to help our team. If it was the ’90s or ’80s, I would’ve been able to say what I had to say and move on. But I got the T. And I earned it.’’
Noah also drew a technical after then verbally going after James again.
Following the Saturday practice, however, coach Tom Thibodeau did his best to sweep the entire episode under the rug.
“Listen, in an NBA game, there’s a lot of things that are said,’’ Thibodeau said. “Just want him going out there and competing. Don’t lose your concentration. Focus in on the next play. Do your job.’’
Bulls big man Taj Gibson took it a step further and all but reminded James that it’s a game for “grown men.’’
“Man, we grew up playing basketball,’’ Gibson said. “Trash-talking is in every neighborhood, every project, every city and state. It doesn’t matter. That’s part of basketball. That’s two guys that are great competitors going after it. It’s part of the game. This is the NBA. This isn’t a bunch of little boys. It’s a bunch of grown men. It’s real physical and things are going to be said. But at the end of the day it’s basketball.’’
Very true, but Noah has had a history of trying to get under James’ skin, whether it was calling the Heat “Hollywood as hell’’ or having to be separated from James several times, including during the 2013 playoffs.
“I just look at his production on the court,’’ Gibson said of Noah. “I worry about him as a player. Jo’s a player that things like that tend … he just speaks his mind. He doesn’t purposely try to do things like that. He’s just one of those great competitors that you want to go to war with, and you know will always have your back 110 percent.’’