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It’s a brand new Joakim Noah for the Bulls

TONIGHT

BUCKS AT BULLS

The facts: 7, CSN, 1000-AM.

How does a player know he’s arrived?

He doesn’t have to say it. Teammates will say it for him. Loudly.

“Hell yeah,” Luol Deng stated emphatically when asked if Joakim Noah was the best center in the Eastern Conference.

It’s not just one teammate speaking out for another, either. There are numbers to back Deng’s assertion up.

Noah will enter tonight’s rematch with Milwaukee sixth in scoring amongst centers in the Eastern Conference with 14 points per game, third in rebounding with 9.7 per game, first in assists with 4.1 per game, tied for third in steals with 1.33 per game, fourth in blocks with 2.08 per game, and maybe the one statistic Noah is most proud of, first in minutes played with 39.2 per game.

That’s how Noah knows he’s arrived, because he’s actually on the court in fourth-quarter crunch-time for the Bulls.

That wasn’t always the case, even going back to the past few seasons, whether it was foul trouble or simply not being sturdy enough defensively.

This year? Noah has stayed in that late-game mix, along with Luol Deng, while head coach Tom Thibodeau has played with the other three spots, trying to find the right mix.

That’s the philosophy right now, like it or not.

“At the end of the day that’s not my decision,” Noah said of the fourth-quarter personnel with a laugh. “Sometimes I wish I could coach, but no more player-coaches? I always tell Thibs how I feel. Sometimes he listens to me, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he gives me that look like, ‘Are you [bleeping] kidding me? Are you really telling me what to do right now?’ Thibs is pretty stubborn. At the end of the day he’s the coach. Like I’ve said for a long time, it’s a dictatorship out here.”

And a coup isn’t planned anytime soon.

“Do I agree with his philosophy? C’mon man,” Noah said smirking. “Put it this way, I want to be in there all the time … I’m not answering that question, man. Trying to get me in trouble.”

Not really, considering Noah’s play has assured the sixth-year veteran that he is one of the closers. Before this season, his career-best in minutes played was 32.8 per game back in the 2010-11 season. And the idea that Noah is playing more minutes because Derrick Rose is still rehabbing his surgically-repaired left anterior cruciate ligament just doesn’t fly.

Noah is smart enough to stay out of foul trouble, healthy enough to guard fours and fives now, and the perfect piece to ugly up a game, which the Bulls are kind of making their trademark with Rose sidelined.

“It’s been tough all season,” Noah said. “It hasn’t been pretty, but it’s a long season and we’ve just got to stay resilient, keep fighting.

“I’m hoping we can play better. [Saturday] we were really hitting the offensive glass hard, but we shot 39 percent, that’s not very good. But besides all that, besides all the numbers, you’ve still got to find a way to get it done and get the win. We just have to play with that grimy, tough mindset every night, and it will put us in position to win.”

The continued maturation of Noah only helps that cause. Gone are the days of wearing the label of “high-energy guy.” Or at least they should be.

“I’m an energy guy at the end of the day, I take pride in that, and I think that people that know the game, appreciate my play,” Noah said. “Those who don’t, I appreciate them, too. I just want to get better.”

So it comes back to the same simple question.

“Am I the best center in the East? Am I the best center in the East?” Noah said, as he thought out loud. “I don’t know man, you tell me.”

That’s how you know he’s arrived.



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