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Joakim Noah’s frustration evident, but who is it with?

Joakim Noah

Joakim Noah

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Despite a poor offensive showing for three quarters and blown opportunities down the stretch and in overtime Saturday against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Bulls’ weekend was successful enough.

Joakim Noah might disagree — as might fans frustrated by coach Tom Thibodeau sitting his All-Star-worthy center for the last 22:53 of the OT loss to the Grizzlies — but there are worse fates than splitting games while Luol Deng nurses a hamstring injury. The Bulls beat the Boston Celtics in overtime on Friday.

Noah uncharacteristically ducked out on reporters after the game Saturday, fueling speculation that he had a beef with Thibodeau.

Thibodeau doesn’t call out players, but it was easy to read between the lines when he talked about why he left his second unit on the floor after it was mostly responsible for the Bulls battling back from a 17-point deficit.

“You have to stay disciplined and not allow frustration to take you away from what we’re trying to do out there,” he said. “We just have to keep battling and battling. You have to get in the fight. It’s physical, and you can’t get thrown around. When you get smacked, you still have to get your job done.”

He was talking about Noah, who scored all 10 of his points in the first quarter before the offense collapsed so completely that Benny the Bull’s behind-the-back, halfcourt three-pointer during a break was the offensive highlight of the first 36 minutes.

Noah was visibly frustrated when several consecutive shots rolled off the rim to start the third quarter. He allowed that frustration to affect his performance.

Meanwhile, Zach Randolph grabbed rebound after rebound. He finished with 19, including nine offensive boards.

Thibodeau had seen enough. With the second unit providing energy and offense, he stuck with it, even in overtime.

The typical Thibodeau debate involves how hard he pushes players and whether treating every regular-season game as if it were Game 7 of the NBA Finals wears players down.

It’s a valid concern until proved otherwise, but what’s often overlooked also was apparent Saturday.

Young players are developing, as evidenced by Jimmy Butler’s breakout performance. With Deng out, Butler maintained his composure in his first career start and scored a career-high 18 points. He also had eight rebounds, three steals and three assists and played solid defense down the stretch.

People question Thibodeau’s methods even after his team posted the NBA’s best record in back-to-back seasons, but this might be Thibodeau’s best coaching job yet. Not only is Derrick Rose still recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, but the “Bench Mob” was disassembled, undermining the depth that was the Bulls’ biggest asset last season.

Still, Thibodeau has built a team greater than the sum of its parts.

Rose improved in each of his three seasons before being derailed by injuries. Noah has improved immensely from last season. Nobody is complaining about Carlos Boozer since he started shouldering more of the offensive load. Marco Belinelli is playing the best all-around ball of his career. Thibodeau is getting more out of Nate Robinson than many believed.

No one in the Bulls’ locker room is better able than Noah to balance his desire to poke fun at Thibodeau while also holding him in the highest esteem. Noah and Thibodeau might not always see eye-to-eye, and they might clash from time to time, but Thibodeau brings out the best in him.

The hunch here is Noah is more upset with himself than he is with Thibodeau.



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