6-9 Joel Anthony? Old, slow Jamaal Magloire and Zydrunas Ilgauskas? No problem, right? Coming into the series versus the Miami Heat, it seemed like the Chicago Bulls' major edge -- along with point guard -- came at the center position with their own Joakim Noah.
But it's been a struggle for Noah through three games, as the Heat have jumped out to a 2-1 series lead and have won the past two games. It all came to a head in the first quarter when Noah picked up his second foul and had to go to the bench. He got into a verbal altercation with a fan, and TNT cameras picked up Noah's verbal barrage. It's been that kind of series for Noah, who received a five-year, $60 million extension from the Bulls in the offseason.
This was the type of series that Noah had the chance to thrive in. He's going up against a weak front line that features just one seven-footer, Ilgauskas, who has yet to see the floor through three games.
No one expected offense from Noah, who's averaging six points on 30 percent shooting. It's the energy, focus and motor that makes him so valuable. That's why the Bulls gave him the big bucks in the offseason; that's why the Bulls were reluctant to deal him to the Denver Nuggets in a Carmelo Anthony deal.
Where has the (composed) yelling, clapping to energize his teammates and yapping to the other team gone?
It's been nonexistent.
Simply, Noah hasn't produced in these Eastern Conference finals. He has just one double-digit rebounding game -- 14 in Game 1 -- and has yet to score in double-figures, although he had nine points in Games 1 and 2.
However, in Game 1, Noah did bring the energy Bulls fans have come to know. With his nine points and 14 rebounds, Noah added four assists, two blocks and two steals -- the type of effort the Bulls want to see every night, not just one night.
He was diving around in Game 1, playing with a relentless attack for the ball. He wanted it that game. But it's been inconsistent ever since. In Games 2 and 3, he's been invisable. And the bad part for the Bulls is if Noah's not producing against the mediocre Heat front line, what hope do they have?
Yes, things weren't going Noah's way, as he had just picked up his second foul, and the fan instigated it, however, as a professional athlete, you can't give the fans any thought. It's easier said than done, although if Noah really wanted to express his frustrations, do it with a teammate, a coach. Just not with a fan to put yourself in a dangerous position.
"I'm really disappointed with the way I played," Noah said to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. "I can do
better on the boards. We couldn't get into a rhythm early. We made a lot
of mental mistakes. We missed assignments. They got easy baskets at the
rim. And everything we do, they're making it tough for us."
Noah wasn't the only issue for the Bulls, though. As a team, they missed rotations, assignments, giving the Heat, who shot 50 percent from the field in Game 3, plenty of good looks at the basket. Chris Bosh's shooting killed the Bulls all night. He scored a game-high 34 points on 13-for-18 shooting, seven of 12 on jumpers, battling from an 0-for-3 start.
Who defended Bosh most of the night? Yep, Noah.
The first quarter verbal altercation with a fan summed up Noah's night: disappointing and frustrating.
The Bulls aren't going to defeat the Heat four times to reach the NBA Finals on star power. The Heat have three stars -- Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. The Bulls have one, the league's Most Valuable Player, Derrick Rose, though even he hasn't shined as bright as expected.
The way the Bulls are going to -- or, were supposed to -- defeat the Heat was with the intangibles: defense, rebounding, hustle plays, energy and an edge. The latter is something the Bulls have preached on all season. But on Sunday, it was the kind of edge.
"People who know me know I'm an open-minded guy," Noah said on his gay slur to a fan. "I'm not here to hurt
anybody's feelings. I'm just here to help win a basketball game."
Not only will Noah have to pay up for his comments, he'll also have to pay up for his underwhelming play this series. And here we all thought Noah had matured, developed into the Bulls' cornerstone along with Rose and Luol Deng. One point and six rebounds in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals was just the tip of the iceberg in what was a disappointing showing -- on the court and on the sidelines.