By Dan Bernstein–

CHICAGO (WSCR) If you’re going to be called an “energy player,” it means three things about you are true.

First, you probably can’t shoot.

Second, you are big enough that merely a high-motor effort around the basket each game is beneficial to your team and disruptive to the opponent. You can fill the stat sheet with rebounds, blocks and put-backs, and do the things that don’t get recorded, like setting hard screens, hustling on defense and winning battles for loose balls.

Third, and most important, you provide emotional energy in a sport where it can matter. You aren’t the beneficiary of the vibe in the arena, but the source.

Joakim Noah played to his description last night, family in the building or not (that whole angle was ridiculous, as we pointed out at the time), and was the most valuable player not named Derrick Rose in the Bulls’ series-tying victory over the Hawks.

I don’t even need to mention how many points or rebounds Noah had, yet, in making the case. The most significant thing he did was defend instinctively and aggressively, and he emerged as the biggest reason why Joe Johnson was unable to replicate his game one performance, when he scored 34 points on 67% shooting.

Tom Thibodeau had Noah moving up quickly to challenge Johnson each time he came around a screen with the ball, cutting off the angle to the basket and dissuading a shot attempt. That accomplished, Noah quickly returned to his man or the other big from which the designated helper had rotated.

(The use of a center moving up from the back-line defense to help cover a guard in screen-roll is widely attributed to Memphis coach Hubie Brown’s defense of the Spurs’ Tony Parker in that action with Tim Duncan, though that was out of a base 2-3 zone and much more actively executed)

Atlanta’s forwards helped out by inexplicably straying back to the perimeter or flattening to the corners, content to settle for jump shots instead of diving immediately to the basket.

Keyed by Noah, the Bulls’ defense held Johnson to 16 points, and the oddly passive Hawks’ frontcourt of Al Horford, Josh Smith and Marvin Williams combined to shoot 26% (9-for-35), as Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer (yes) both handled their responsibilities as well.

There is a misconception of Noah as a defender, since too many fans look at one-on-one matchups instead of team concepts. He’s never been stout against larger or quicker players looking to score off their own moves in the low post – it’s his length, athleticism, ability to cover ground and maximum effort that make him a valuable defensive player when used properly, as he was last night.

His seven offensive rebounds either resulted in put-back points or kept the possession alive. He made seven of eight free throws.

It’s hard to believe that it’s already been two years since Noah’s steal/dunk/and-1 against the Celtics’ Paul Pierce became the foundation for an entire promotional campaign, and was the lingering image of his inspired play that garnered him a lucrative contract extension before this season.

“Joakim is big,” Deng said. “He’s the heart of this team.”

For the Bulls to win a title, the heart has to be pumping like that from here on out.

bernstein 90x130 Bernstein: Noah The Difference For Bulls

Dan Bernstein

Dan Bernstein has been the co-host of “Boers and Bernstein” since 1999. He joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995. The Boers and Bernstein Show airs every weekday from 1PM to 6PM on The Score, 670AM. Read more of Bernstein’s blogs here. Follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein.
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