Bulls

Sam: Noah's return to form is Bulls missing link

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Sam: Noah's return to form is Bulls missing link

Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Posted: 5:30 p.m.
By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

NEW YORKThis was supposed a playoff preview. Before the Bulls blew away their Eastern Conference competition in the second half of the season, it was thought that the Knicks were a likely first-round opponent, even before the blockbuster trade-deadline deal that brought Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to the Big Apple.

Now, the game is meaningless on many frontsboth teams are locked into their respective postseason seedsand with All-Star forward Amare Stoudemire out for New York with a sprained left ankle, the biggest drama Tuesday night is whether the Bulls can continue to remain on the heels of San Antonio for the leagues top record and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Except for one player.

Back in his hometown, Bulls center Joakim Noah has been mired in a slump as of late. Some of it has been caused by his slow recovery from a sprained right ankle, coming on the heels of a 30-game absence due to thumb surgery. However, Noah is a player whos made his nameand a lucrative five-year, 60-million offseason contract extensionby being the consummate hustle player and lately, the joie de vivre of the fluent French speaker just hasnt been there.

I just have to do better. I just have to be more aggressive going to the board, said Noah after Mondays practice at Madison Square Garden, after which he worked individually with Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, something the pair did in the offseason at the Berto Center. Just try to get my rhythm back and Im working as hard as I can to get that back.

To get better and just be as ready as possible for the game, he continued. I know I need some extra work right now, so Im just working hard and Thibs just makes sure I get my drills in, what I need to do.

Thibodeau elaborated on what he believes will solve Noahs struggles.

Hes a great worker, so when hes able to practicehes gone a long time without contactso now, hes coming back and taking contact on. Theres a lot going on, but hes got the ability to overcome all that stuff and play extremely welland he willIm confident, explained Thibodeau, who described their post-practice work as trying to get a little extra work in to sharpen up some post moves.

Right before the ankle injury, I thought he really started to play well. I thought his timing was coming back, he was active and I think the time off with the ankleand its still a little bit swollenbut hes got to get through that and weve got to get him going because we know whats coming. So, the extra work, I think, is good and the one thing I know about Jo is when Jos practicing well, hes playing well. Thats the first step, to try to get his practices up to speed, where hes really playing well and feels good about his game.

You want to be playing your best basketball and you want to be healthy, and thats the challenge right now with Jo. Hes coming off injury and weve got to get him up to speed, in terms of having him feel healthy, but then, weve got to make sure we get his game up to speed also. Were moving in that direction, continued the former Knicks assistant coach. A big part of Noahs lack of timing is the amount of time that he missed. Jo has great timing and great hands. When you see him miss-time a jump or bobble a catch, thats not him and when hes at his best, if the balls near him, hes getting it, and hes real active with tip-ins. I thought he was getting there prior to the ankle injury. Theres nothing you can do about it; its misfortune.

Now, weve got to try to get him to do the extra work to get back up to speed, where hes high-energy. Two games ago, he was very good with the blocked shotshis timing was great on those; he had six blocks in a game in short minutesbut weve just got to get him going. It comes back to his practices. When he can practice well, hes going to play well. Hes already proven that. He practiced great at the start of the year, got off to a great start and then, he was out. When you miss half the season, thats a lot of time to miss. Now, youve got to get back up to speed. Youve got to put the extra work in. It starts with your practices. Once he starts feeling good about the practices, hell feel good about the games.

Still, Noahs intangibles are what have made him invaluable and while the Bulls in general play with tremendous heart on most nights, Noahs energetic spirit can be the difference in key matchups.

I dont want to rely on any one guy for just one thing; I want that to be a total team commitment. Often times, Jo is the guy who will come up the big hustle plays for ushitting the floor, going from one side of the rim to the other to chase down a rebound, taking a charge, blocking a shotand those things help inspire your teammates. When you have a big hustle play, those are the types of things that get your team going and those are his strengths. When hes at his best, hes as good as anybody, said Thibodeau. Thats what we need. We need his energy, we need his rebounding, we need his defense, we need his hustle plays. Thats what makes him who he is and thats what makes us a good team.

Additionally, the Bulls season-long ownership of the backboards has been waning recently. If Noah can regain the form that made him one of the leagues elite rebounders, that will make their hopes of an extended playoff run that much more realistic, although Thibodeau insists that only a group effort will result in improvement.

For us, its such a big part of what we dodefend and rebound, so we can get out into the open floor. It is one of our strengths. Weve been a dominant rebounding team all season long and we do it really with gang rebounding. Of course, Jo, hes the best at it when hes healthy, so weve got to get him healthy. And Carlos is a great rebounder. Omer and TajTaj has been doing a great joband Lu gets in there. Were trying to get Ronnie and Derrick and Keith in there a little bit more. When our guards are rebounding, thats when were dominant, said Thibodeau, who added that Noahs ability to run the floor allows us to play with more pace.

Thats the strength of our club; we have the five bigs up front and throughout the course of the season, weve had to navigate with one guy being down, so we feel comfortable that we can do it, but obviously wed prefer to have all our bigs because really thats where the strength of the club lies, in terms of our defense and rebounding. Jo has provenif hes right14 and 12 rebounds, and two or three blocks, and great energy.

Thats Noah running the floor in transition what allows us to play with more pace.

Regardless of how it manifests itself, its obvious that Noah must get on the same page as both his coach and serious-minded teammatesand soonfor the Bulls to head into the postseason with the right mentality.

Its going to take him a lot of work, observed All-Star point guard Derrick Rose about his free-spirited teammate. He was running after practice, getting his conditioning back and hes been resting, even though hes in his city.

Theres no time like the present for Noah to get back into the swing of things, with the added motivation of playing in his hometown.

Playing here is unbelievable for me. I remember being a little kid, coming in and sitting all the way up top, watching games. I saw Larry Johnson hit that four-point play. I was in here when Michael Jordan came back, reflected Noah, who didnt participate in the Bulls Christmas Day loss in New York due to injury. I was in this building a lot growing up and just being able to come here was always the best gift you could ever give me, so being able to play in this environment and playing with the Bulls, its something thats unbelievable.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

This is part of a four-part series looking back at the historic career of Michael Jordan and the legacy he left on the game of basketball. It all leads up to Saturday when we unveil his top 5 moments on his 55th birthday. Here are 55-4544-23, and 22-6.

5. Jordan wins fourth title and finishes greatest individual season ever, June 16, 1996

It’s hard to comprehend just how much Jordan accomplished during the 1995-96 season. We’ll try:He won his fourth championship, was named NBA Finals MVP for a record fourth time, won All-Star Game MVP, won a record 72 games, was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, was the league’s leading scorer and became the Bulls’ all-time leader in games played. So when he dropped a casual 22 points in Game 6, it marked the end of one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Oh, and Space Jam came out a few months later.
 
4. Jordan hits six triples, scores 35 points in first half against Blazers, June 3, 1992

During the 1991-92 regular season, Jordan never made more than three 3-pointers in a single game. In fact, the most 3-pointers he had in any two-game stretch that year was four. So when he began burying triple after triple in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, even Jordan couldn’t believe it, giving a shrug toward the NBC announcers as if to say, “I don’t know, either.” Jordan finished the first half with six triples and scored an NBA-record 35 points. The Bulls cruised in the second half, so Jordan finished with only 39, but his shrug remains one of the most iconic NBA Finals moments in history.
 
3. Jordan battles the flu, scores 38 in Game 5 on his way to fifth title, June 11, 1997

The Flu Game. Jordan was battling a nasty illness in the lead-up to a pivotal Game 5 in Utah, and there were concerns about whether he would even suit up. Hours before tip Jordan got out of bed and made his way to the arena, looking to halt Utah’s momentum after it had taken Games 3 and 4 to tie the series. The Jazz came out red-hot while Jordan looked sluggish, but he responded with 17 points in the second quarter alone to give the Bulls a halftime lead. Jordan then keyed a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter to erase a Jazz lead, and he hit a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left to give the Bulls a three-point lead. The Bulls hung on, and Jordan collapsed into Scottie Pippen’s arms walking off the floor. His final line? 38 points, 13 of 27 shooting, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. Two days later the Bulls won the title in front of a sellout Chicago crowd.

2. Jordan scores 63 points against Celtics in playoff loss, April 20, 1986

Jordan had just turned 23 years old when he took to the Boston Garden floor to face Larry Bird in his prime and the Celtics. These Celtics had gone 40-1 at home, led the NBA in field goal percentage defense, started FOUR future Hall of Famers and had a fifth come off the bench. They would ultimately go down as one of the all-time greatest teams, and Jordan made them look absolutely silly. He played 50 minutes in the double-overtime thriller, shooting 22 of 41 from the field and making 19 of 21 free throws, including the last two with no time on the clock and the Bulls trailing by two at the end of regulation. He scored 54 in regulation, added five in the first overtime and four in the second. He also led the Bulls with six assists. It still stands as the NBA record for most points in any playoff game. Twenty-three years old. Twenty. Three.

1. Jordan scores 45 in final game with the Bulls, securing sixth championship, June 14, 1998

Jordan’s final game with the Bulls was iconic. Like so many of these moments, die hards know exactly where they were. The 45 points were majestic, and while he only had one rebound and one assist he affected just about every possession on both ends. But what we’ll remember most is the final 37 seconds. Jordan drove to the basket for layup that cut Utah’s lead to one, then stripped Karl Malone from behind on the next trip down. That gave the ball back to the Bulls with 20 seconds left. Jordan let the clock tick down to around 9 seconds before making his move from the left wing, driving right on Bryon Russell, (maybe pushing off) and pulling up for a jumper at the foul line. The shot was good with 5.2 seconds remaining, and John Stockton’s ensuing 3-pointer was off the mark. It gave Jordan and the Bulls their sixth NBA title, and marked the perfect ending to his Bulls career: getting it done on both ends, in the clutch, and finishing with a victory. Because it encapsulated so much of his 14-year career in Chicago, it’s our top Michael Jordan moment.

Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn have moments in highlight-filled rising stars challenge

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn have moments in highlight-filled rising stars challenge

LOS ANGELES—Kris Dunn wanted to have some fun in the Rising Stars game while Lauri Markkanen wanted to get a win.

Both accomplished their goals, being on opposite sides for the first time as the best first and second year players were divided into U.S. and International teams, with the World Team winning 155-124 Friday night at Staples Center.

It wasn’t set up for either Dunn or Markkanen to truly stand out considering the presence of Lakers and Celtics players who were more notable and flashy, along with the spectacular exploits of rookies Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Dennis Smith Jr (Denver).

Those two certainly wowed the crowd at times with half-court alley-oop passes, giving a preview of what Saturday night will look like, considering both will be in the dunk contest.

Dunn scored nine points in 18 minutes while Markkanen scored 15 in 22 minutes. Both came off the bench, ceding to the likes of Sacramento’s Buddy Hield (29 points) and Bogdan Bogdanovic, who turned the game into his own 3-point showcase with 30-foot bombs, hitting seven triples for 26 points off the bench.

Boston’s Jaylen Brown led all scorers with 35 points and 10 rebounds, playing for the U.S. team, showing his entire bag of tricks with spectacular dunks and dribble moves for jumpers.

Markkanen had his moments in the “game within a game” category. When prompted by World coach Rex Kalamian that the first player to get a block would get $100, Markkanen tipped the next shot at the rim and pointed to the scorer’s table, but wasn’t credited with the block.

However, he felt like he got his pound of flesh with Dunn on a tip-dunk. The two didn’t have their moment

“I almost jumped over his head. That counts,” he joked.

Dunn made sure that although he and Markkanen were on opposite sides that he remained Markkanen’s biggest fan.

When asked who was his pick for rookie of the year, he repeatedly said “Lauri Markkanen”, over the likes of Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma from the Lakers, another standout rookie.

His reasoning was simple.

“Why? He hit eight threes in Madison Square Garden,” Dunn said, half-jokingly.

Half-jokingly.

“For Lauri to be a rookie and have so much confidence in himself and to play in big time games, especially at Madison Square Garden. I’m gonna keep bringing that game up. Because He had eight three’s. You don’t see that too mnay times. Lauri is a big player for us,” Dunn said.

Markkanen probably won’t win the award but to see Dunn so steadfastly support his teammate in this way is a good sign for a budding relationship, despite the light moments of competitiveness where Dunn said he wanted to take advantage of Markkanen on the perimeter.

Markkanen’s game has been aided by Dunn on the floor and one could see how the quality of looks Markkanen had in the past few weeks suffered with Dunn out due to a concussion.

Dunn’s turnaround directly led to the Bulls turning around their season in December, and he remembers what he was doing this time last year at the All-Star break when he wasn’t selected to be part of the rookie challenge.

“Thibs had me in the gym,” Dunn said.

It seemed unlikely but he’s rebounded nicely, being a shoo-in for 15 points, eight assists and two steals on a nightly basis. Turning the corner has been a bright spot in the season.

“I wouldn’t say a specific game but each and every game I started to get more comfortable, not with myself but with my team,” Dunn said. “Being a point guard, you gotta build that chemistry with your teammates and try to figure out where everybody needs the ball. How you can be aggressive and lead at the same time.”