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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.

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

The door has officially been closed on the 2017-18 season for the Chicago Bulls, and the word that most comes to mind is “unfulfilling.”

Or maybe even “indistinguishable.”

Draft night was supposed to be a culmination of a painful seven-month stretch that only had occasional yet costly moments of light.

Death lineup? Meet Death March. And Death April, while we’re at it.

The Bulls brass sold everyone on a full rebuild after trading Jimmy Butler one year ago, with an unspoken promise that this draft would bear franchise-changing fruit—hence the general feeling of angst or even indifference with the solid selection of Wendell Carter Jr. and their not-so-secret affection of Chandler Hutchison.

It was why fans believe the Bulls got cold feet about trading to move up, and why they believe the Bulls weren’t being pragmatic in staying away from Michael Porter Jr.

Porter, some believe, has star written all over him given his prep ranking this time last year and the Bulls were in position to speed up this process without having to go into a painful Process.

They were desperate for a star, believing the tankathon had produced so much suffering it had to be something on the back end.

There was the fight (or the punch).

The aftermath.

The miserable 3-20 start.

The 14-7 streak that produced the audacity of hope.

The reality that 14-7 was damaging enough to the lottery chances that a 3-11 finish couldn’t rectify.

And finally, the coin flip that cost them five spots in the lottery one month ago.

So that empty feeling has less to do with Carter and Hutchison, who’ve done nothing to earn the “blah” reaction from the fan base and some media. It has everything to do with the unanswered questions over the last 82 games and lack of clarity over the three hauls from draft night last year.

It’s not that Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn underperformed individually last season, but the lack of cohesiveness due to injuries and circumstances has led to the varying thoughts.

LaVine is approaching restricted free agency and by all accounts is taking his continuing rehab in Washington very seriously.  Markkanen has added plenty of muscle since the offseason began, appearing as if he can play Michael B. Jordan’s in-ring foil in the next installation of “Creed” as Ivan Drago’s long lost son.

And despite the report about Dunn not working as hard on the floor this offseason, that would be more of a concern if this were late August, not June.

The last time they were seen together on the floor, they looked no closer to a pecking order than the day they arrived.

What we know is that they’re productive NBA players, capable of putting an individual tattoo on a game at a moment’s notice, skillful enough to take your breath away.

And for whatever reason, the expectations changed once the three displayed they could be dynamic on their own—a star needed to be anointed and groomed to go with the star they believed was coming their way after the season.

Management is fully behind Markkanen, but Paxson’s strong words about LaVine at the season-ending news conference illustrated how much it feels LaVine has to prove next season.

With his restricted free agency status looming, the Bulls’ initial offer will show how much they value him until and if he gets a better deal on the market.

And the fact the Bulls weren’t afraid to draft Trae Young while having a healthy debate about Collin Sexton on draft night has to show they have at least some skepticism about the future at point guard.

But stars—developing stars, acquired stars, drafted stars—have to do it on their own. No amount of promotion or prodding from management will validate their faith, if that’s the route the Bulls choose to go.

This has to be a meritocracy or it won’t work and, honestly, it’s time for a reality check.

All the worry about the Bulls getting back to title contention sooner rather than later seems like folks getting ahead of themselves.

The front office has taken its share of shots from media and fans, so some questioning is earned but they’re right about one thing. Rebuilds aren’t completed in a day or 12 months.

Expecting some magic potion to arrive in the form of a top draft pick isn’t going to cure what ills this roster, and it doesn’t seem likely all the cap space will result in a free agent choosing the Bulls over the usual suspects.

However, methodical building can look like complacency if not done with a sense of urgency.

And with urgency in mind, this past season was unsatisfying to say the least—heading into the next phase with two more young pieces to develop while the first three are still in the evaluation stage.

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Donte Ingram's 2018 keeps getting better and better.

The March Madness hero, who buried a game-winning 3-pointer in the first round of Loyola's win over Miami, will play on the Bulls' Summer League team.

Ingram, a Simeon Academy graduate, had himself an incredible senior season with the Ramblers, who advanced all the way to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.

In five NCAA Tournament games Ingram averaged 7.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists for the Ramblers. He also had 18 points in the MVC Conference Championship Game to secure the Ramblers' March Madness berth.

He'll join first-round draft picks Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison on the Las Vegas Summer League team, which will begin play early next month.