Bears

Noah's development on full display after monster performance

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Noah's development on full display after monster performance

AUBURN HILLS, MICH. His 30 points and 23 rebounds jump off of the stat sheet, but according to Joakim Noah, he didnt do anything different in Friday nights 108-104 win over the Pistons, the 16th consecutive win in the storied rivalry for the Bulls, at The Palace at Auburn Hills.

Noah, with one of his mentors, retired former Piston and ex-Bull Ben Wallace watching courtside, set career-highs in both aforementioned categories to go along with six assists and two blocked shots had the most dominant game of his six NBA seasons.

Body Wallaces nickname, thats my vet and to have him there, that means a lot. I learned a lot from him and even though we lost a lot of games, we spent a lot of time together. Thats my big, and he was the guy that really taught me a lot, him and Brad Miller, Drew Gooden. Those are my vets, so shout-out to my vets, an exhausted Noah said afterwards before revealing the postgame advice Wallace, a renowned rebounder and legendary defensive player gave him. He said I should have more rebounds and more points. He said I should have had 35. Hes a hater. Hes a hater, but thats why I love him. Im a hater, too.

It feels great to play well and to win. Weve just got another one tomorrow, so cant get too happy, even though its crazy to have numbers like that. But you know what? Im happy we won and just got to move on, he continued. I knew I was missing a lot of tips in the beginning of the game. In some arenas, they count as rebounds. In some other arenas, they dont. So Im happy they counted.

Noah might have shrugged off his remarkable outing, but his teammates and even Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau didnt. They knew that they were witnessing something special.

Played really well in every area: Defense, rebounding, scoring, passing, playmaking, mental toughness, digging down, got us out of a hole. Great all-around game, Thibodeau said. He was everywhere. It was a great all-around game, every facet of the game. His scores, his multiple-effort rebounds, his playmaking he and Lu got going, some cutting-type action, two-man game so he had a great rhythm going, played big minutes. Played hard every minute.

Carlos Boozer, who wasnt too shabby himself with 24 points on identical shooting numbers to Noah, 12-of-19 from the floor chimed in: Unbelievable. I told him, Thats some Shaq-type numbers, because we needed every rebound, we needed every point and he gave it to us. Jos one of those guys that always works hard. People dont give him enough credit. He busts his butt every day to work on his game. People dont understand how talented he really is because everybody thinks hes just a defender, but he goes hard, man. Hes in the gym early working on his game, in the gym late working on his game. You guys come in after our practice is over, you see him going through his routine. Hes a hard worker, man. I know the numbers were astronomical tonight, but hes been playing great really all season, to be quite frank.

Luol Deng, who had a quietly effective, 16 points, six assists and five rebounds joked: We did that on purpose. We were missing shots. I told him Id miss a lot of shots, so he could get his rebounding up. I just didnt know he was going to finish them.

Then, turning seriously, Noahs longtime teammate added: Seriously though, he deserves it. Jos been playing well all season and a game like this just lets people know how hard he works. Tonight, he was rebounding every ball, his energy was unbelievable and probably the best game of his career. Actually, you know what? Theres some games where he played really well. Its up there. The stats are just unbelievable in this game, but Jo just plays with a lot of energy.

Perhaps more significant than Noahs numbers was, as Boozer mentioned, the fact that he had those kind of statistics in a close game. The Bulls didnt play their usual brand of defense at the outset, allowing the Pistons to have a 30-point opening period, then fell behind by 17 in the second quarter before Noah truly asserted his will on the contest.

I just felt like just our energy was low from the start of the game. Were playing a lot of games in a short amount of time, so its just human reaction when theres not a lot of people in the stands to kind of put your guard down. But I think we regrouped pretty well and it was a hard-fought win, the charismatic center said before referring specifically to the deficit the Bulls faced after, to paraphrase Thibodeau, digging a hole for themselves. Oh, that was huge, huge, huge. I think we were down 17 and we got it down to five pretty fast, so that was definitely big for us. It gave us a lot of momentum.

Kirk Hinrich added: Its huge. When you see a teammate going like that you dont want to be letting your teammates down anyway but when you see a guy going like that, with that type of energy and playing with that kind of heart, you definitely dont want to be not giving it your all, as well.

Hinrich, now in his second stint with the Bulls, has seen Noah develop from a strictly energy player to an underrated offensive talent and arguably the most versatile center in the league.

He plays with that kind of energy, activity. Hes much more talented than people give him credit for. He can handle, he can pass, he can score inside, he can drive guys, using his quickness and energy a lot of times, so Im not surprised. Hes very capable of having big nights, he explained. Yeah, probably number-wise it was the best game of Noahs career, but the thing about Jo is his energy is there every night and he goes to the board every time, and when you do that and youre as talented as he is, youre bound to have some nights like this.

Deng concurred: He has a knack. A lot of people dont think hes good offensively, but he is. It might not look smooth, but thats his game. His hook is different, his jump shot is different, his driving game is different for a big man always drives away from the basket, but get those shots its just his game. He just works hard and its still a long season, but hes just got to keep it up.

Even the perfection-driven Thibodeau couldnt deny how much of an offensive force Noah is becoming.

Its in him. I think hes got to continue to push himself. I think he can do a lot better than hes doing right now, the coach acknowledged. Hes worked at his game, but theres still things that I think he can get to that he hasnt gotten to yet.

As for Noah himself, he still sees himself as the same type of player, but he admitted that with all of the work hes put into rounding out his game, hes now worthy of consideration for more widespread recognition.

To be honest with you, I dont think that my game has changed that much. Im just more comfortable knowing where I can be effective, how to get my hooks off and Im feeling a lot more comfortable shooting the ball, too. So, Im just more comfortable on the court and I work hard on my game, he explained, before answering the inevitable follow-up question. Do I want to be an All-Star? Yeah, I want to be an All-Star, but I try not to think about it or play to be an All-Star. I try to play for my teammates and try to affect winning. I think that when you start worrying about individual accolades, I think it takes away from team and this is a team game.

Deng, who emphatically proclaimed him the best center in the Eastern Conference weeks ago, supported his good friends case, armed with the knowledge, as a first-time All-Star himself last season, that it sometimes takes a while for observers to notice contributions from players who dont always put up gaudy scoring numbers: I think he should. Its up to the coaches, what they pick, but when you talk about us, Im sure a lot of teams, when they scout us, theyre talking about Jos energy and how huge that is for our team, and keeping him off the boards. Hes just got to keep it up, stay consistent and after that, he cant control that. That just happens.

For now, however, Noah is only concerned about the immediate future.

Im happy were 2-0 on the road trip and it feels good to play well. Thats why you work hard on your game, is to play well and to help the team. Sometimes its your night and sometimes it isnt, he said. As long as we look at the big picture we have a big game coming up and cant get too high, cant get too low, stay focused and get ready for the Knickerbockers.

Could Bears improve and still lose ground? The MMQB's Albert Breer weighs in on tough NFC North

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USA TODAY

Could Bears improve and still lose ground? The MMQB's Albert Breer weighs in on tough NFC North

NBC Sports Chicago’s John "Moon" Mullin talked with The MMQB's Albert Breer, who shared his thoughts on where the Bears stand — and if they’ll be able to compete — in a highly competitive NFC North.

Moon: The Bears have made upgrades, but they’re in the NFC North and not many divisions are tougher, given the strength at quarterbacks.

Breer: Yes. You look at the other three teams, and they all very much believe they’re in a window for winning a championship. The Packers are going through some changes, but they’ve gotten Mike Pettine in there as defensive coordinator and a new general manager who was aggressive on draft day. I know that internally they feel that’s going to give them a boost, and bringing Aaron Rodgers back obviously is the biggest thing of all.

Minnesota, all the things they did this offseason, signing (quarterback) Kirk Cousins, (defensive lineman) Sheldon Richardson, and they were knocking on the door last year.

The Lions have been building for two years under (general manager) Bob Quinn and (new coach) Matt Patricia, who lines right up with the general manager — the two of them worked together in New England. They really believe that Matthew Stafford is ready to take the sort of jump that Matt Ryan made in Atlanta a few years ago, where you see that mid-career breakthrough from a quarterback that we see sometimes now.

It’s one of the toughest divisions in football, and every team in the division believes that it’s in the position to contend right now.

Moon: We didn’t see a lot of Mitch Trubisky — 12 games — so it sounds possible that the Bears could improve and still lose ground.

Breer: The Lions were pretty good last year. The Vikings were in the NFC Championship game. And who knows where the Packers would’ve been if Rodgers hadn’t broken his collarbone. The biggest change is that Aaron Rodgers will be back, and that’s the best player in the league. It was a really good division last year, and you’re adding back in a Hall of Fame quarterback.

As far as the Bears, there’s going to be questions where the organization is going. It’s been seven years since they were in the playoffs. I think they certainly got the coach hire right. This is a guy who I know other organizations liked quite a bit and was going to be a head coach sooner or later.

And I think he matches up well with Mitch. I think the Bears are in a good spot, but as you said, they’re competing in a difficult environment, so it may not show up in their record.

Moon: A lot of love for the Vikings after they get to the NFC Championship and then add Kirk Cousins.

Breer: A lot of people look at Minnesota and think Kirk Cousins’ll be a huge improvement. And maybe he will be. I think he’s a very good quarterback, top dozen in the league. But Case Keenum played really, really well last year, so it wasn’t like they weren’t getting anything out of that position last year.

The NFC right now is clearly the strength of the league. If you picked the top 10 teams in the league, you could make a case that seven or eight of them are in the NFC. I think there will be NFC teams that miss the playoffs who could be in the Super Bowl coming out of the AFC. There’s a little bit of an imbalance there.

Moon: Trubisky projects as part of a wave of new quarterbacks league-wide, a sea change in the NFL.

Breer: The interesting thing is that this is probably as stable as the league has been at quarterback in a long time. There’ve been questions where the next great quarterbacks will come from, but I don’t know that there’s a team right now in the NFL like you looked at the Jets or Browns last year, where you say that team is definitely drafting a quarterback in 2019.

Everyone either has a big-money veteran or former first-round pick on their roster. One team that doesn’t is the Cowboys, but they’ve got Dak Prescott who’s played really well. Every team in the league has some stability at the position. I think the position is as healthy as it’s been in a long time, and you’ve got a lot of good young prospects.

A significant first practice goes well for three Bears critical to 2018 success

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USA TODAY

A significant first practice goes well for three Bears critical to 2018 success

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — It’s a major Bears story until it isn’t, and in Friday's first practice of training camp ’18, the story was that Leonard Floyd, Kyle Long and Allen Robinson weren’t the story. 

Not even the weather was a story, as coach Matt Nagy continued the two-hour practice without interruption despite repeated torrential downpours. Whether this represented a soggy, wet chapter of Nagy’s campaign of physical practices and getting his team “calloused” is a question, but “It's just a part of what we wanted to do,” Nagy said, with a bit of a smile. “We weren't going inside. We were coming outside unless that (lightning/tornado) horn went off. So it was a good day. The guys fought through it.”

Getting through it was of franchise-grade import for three linchpins coming off significant injuries that cost them all or part of their 2017 seasons. All had been largely held out of minicamps and training camps, making Friday a de facto shakedown cruise for three players the Bears need at the elite levels projected for them.

Floyd practiced without the large brace he’d worn during minicamp work and which he admitted was an impediment to performance. Bears medical and training staff and Floyd have been pointing to this moment as the first step toward full health for the regular season.

“I basically, this whole offseason, I've been working on getting my leg right,” Floyd said on Friday. “I’m not really looking into who's playing where. I've been looking to get back healthy. ... Yeah, I'm able to go full force.”

Floyd’s pursuit speed was noteworthy as he ran down several offensive players with the football.

Players were not in pads, but Robinson similarly flashed, at one point making a difficult catch of a ball slightly behind him as he was tumbling to the ground. If he was holding anything back, it was not apparent in his cuts, routes and runs after catches.

“I feel great,” Robinson said. “It's been a process that we've taken a little bit slower, but I think that was for the best. It just was all about getting me ready for this time right here, so I feel great. I feel 100 percent.”

Long has been buffeted by injuries requiring surgeries over the past two years. The setbacks have taken him down from the Pro Bowl level at which he played his first three seasons.

But he turns 30 in December and is entering his sixth NFL season having missed 14 games the past two years after just one the first three.

“I’m feeling great,” Long said. “It’s really a lot of fun to get out here with my teammates and start camp without any limitations and be able to contribute from Day 1. It feels good. I spent a lot of time with our training staff. I got to know Andre Tucker really well, our new head trainer. He has done a tremendous job.

“You know, it’s Day 1 and I was out there at practice, and I got to hit other guys, and that was fun. I don’t look much into psychological hurdles. But a physical hurdle? Yes, it was. I had a lot going on this offseason. I’m just really happy to be out here.”

All was not good news physically for the Bears as inside linebacker Danny Trevathan and cornerback/special teamer Sherrick McManis were held out of practice after hamstring issues surfaced in their pre-camp physicals. Nagy said neither was considered serious but gave no timetable for their returns.