Maybe it’s the hair.
Having just finished his television interview on the frigid parquet, Joakim Noah burst through the double doors on his way to the Bulls’ locker room and led the chant.
“Here we go, baby,” Noah yelled to his teammates, who were already celebrating inside.
Noah entered a locker room that bordered on boisterous. Bulls players chanted and cheered as if they’d won something much bigger than a regular season game in January. For a 17-20 team, though, this was something bigger.
“This is probably the most complete game we played all year,” said Derrick Rose. “We controlled it. That’s something we’ve been working on.”
As the team’s best player, Rose has been anointed Chicago’s leader. But it was Noah and Luol Deng who provided most of the energy tonight for the Bulls. Noah, from whom double-doubles are now expected, put up 15 points and 11 rebounds. The Bulls were plus 18 with him on the floor.
“He’s our spark,” said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “We feed off him.”
Noah’s infectious energy is an annoyance to opposing teams and fans. One Celtics fan held up a sign at tonight’s game that had something to do with calling Noah ugly. But unlike Mike Bibby, another favorite Celtics pariah, Noah draws his ire solely from what he does on the court.
“They looked athletic,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of the Bulls. “They looked quicker. I thought they came with a sense of purpose tonight.”
The Celtics didn’t lack purpose on purpose. The NBA is a grind, and the Celtics are in the midst of one of those January stretches that take a toll on a veteran team: four games in five nights, second night of a back-to-back, with key players injured.
“Every team in the NBA has to do it,” said Celtics captain Paul Pierce. “We’re conditioned to play as many games as they put on the schedule, so I don’t know if that’s a factor or not…We feel like we’re at home, we should be a better team at home than what we’ve been playing as of late.”
Said Rivers, “Defensively we were switching when we shouldn’t switch. And maybe that is fatigue. I don’t know. But I’d rather give the credit to the Bulls.”
Flash back to last season, when the Bulls took the Celtics to seven games in an epic first-round playoff series. The young and athletic Bulls gave the Celtics trouble in part because they never stopped running (and because Ben Gordon never stopped shooting). Gordon is gone, but the Bulls now have another energy guy to join Noah in wreaking havoc.
With Deng healthy, Pierce is faced with a matchup nightmare. Deng made his first 12 shots from the floor tonight, six free throws and six field goals, on his way to a game-high 25 points. On defense, Deng forced Pierce into a line that was Iverson-esque: 20 points on 18 field goal attempts.
“I mean there’s a lot of tough matchups,” said Pierce. “But for a guy who hasn’t been an All-Star in this league, he’s about as good as it gets without being an All-Star.”
At 6 feet 9 inches, Deng has the size to bother Pierce’s shot, and he’s got the speed to stay down and not allow Pierce to drive past him. Along with Rose and Noah, he makes the Bulls a team the Celtics probably don’t want to face in another playoff series, should Chicago make a run at the postseason.
“We got our butt kicked tonight, in every fashion,” said Rivers, who couldn’t have been happy this was the game his son’s youth basketball team was in-house to witness. “I hate when it happens at home. It’s happened too much as far as I’m concerned. We’ve got to fix the problem.”