By Cody Westerlund-
CHICAGO (CBS) – With perhaps the season’s most emotional game behind him, Chicago center Joakim Noah paused for a few seconds, deep in thought after his team’s come-from-behind 95-88 overtime victory against nemesis Miami on Sunday at the United Center.
Noah had felt similar emotions before on a basketball floor, days in which, as teammate Jimmy Butler said, “You don’t have to ask who we play, we’re so fired up.” Now his mind raced back to recall them.
“Rupp Arena – Kentucky,” said Noah, a two-time national champion at Florida. “That Gator-Kentucky (crap) was for real.”
With that came the memories for Noah. First of how sweet a game like Sunday’s feels, of how much he enjoys engaging a bitter rival, as he did in the final 30 seconds Sunday, the trash talk flowing out with such speed and raw emotion toward Chris Bosh that it’s a wonder if either of them knew what Noah was saying.
“Beating Miami, I don’t care if it’s the regular season, it’s always special,” Noah said.
In saying this, Noah also confronted the truth of why it’s special to beat the two-time defending champions.
“(At Florida), we used to destroy (Kentucky), so it’s different (here),” said Noah, who was 5-1 against the Wildcats as a Gator. “Those guys (the Heat), they’ve ended our seasons a lot (twice in three seasons). That’s where the hate comes from. It’s not, ‘Oh, I hate this guy.’ It’s that these guys ended it – I want what they have. I want a championship, and I know to get there one day, we’re going to have to get through those guys. So that’s the hatred.”
In Noah’s emotion, the Bulls find their strength. Against the Heat, he was at top billing, furiously clapping his hands during a play after a block of Bosh, embracing every one-on-one defensive assignment against LeBron James that he picked up off switches and pointing to his father, Yannick, in the stands after big plays.
The Bulls also draw from Noah a certain stubbornness, which manifests itself on the court in defensive fundamentals – Noah has some of the most active hands of any defender you’ll see, and the Bulls follow his lead – and off the courts in their beliefs.
For a team that steadfastly believes it can still win a championship – even when no one else does – despite the absence of its star player also believes it annoys the hell out of Miami unlike anyone else in the league.
“Tonight I saw him on the foul line,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said of Noah, “talking trash to all of their faces, like, ‘Yeah, not in here tonight, it’s not going down.’ And getting them mad. It’s crazy.”
There’s reason for the Bulls’ bravado. They are 9-6 in the regular season against the Heat since LeBron James signed with Miami in 2010, and in Butler they have a defender with the ability, if not the brute force, to match up with the world’s best player.
Then, their resolve is only steeled on days like Sunday, when the Bulls won the battle of second-chance points 27-6 and left Heat coach Erik Spoelstra saying, “They pummeled us.”
“It gives us confidence that we can beat them,” said Butler, who held James to 17 points on 8-of-23 shooting. “We do have to do it in the playoffs. Like (coach Tom Thibodeau) said, you can’t go around them, you’re going to have to go through them.”
Noah admitted afterward the Bulls have had to be wary of their minds wandering into “what-if” territory following the loss of Derrick Rose to another knee injury, yet he refuses to recalibrate expectations for a second, believing emotion can always provide an edge to make a difference.
In the crucible of a seven-game series against superior talent, it’s a far-fetched idea, as the Bulls will probably discover again in time. In a one-game fight, it’s possible, and so Noah will hang onto the idea and relish it.
“We played with a lot of hate today,” Noah said. “A lot of hate.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.