CHICAGO | Free spirit Joakim Noah has undergone an amazing transformation from clown to All-Star since joining the Bulls.
He has finally grown up.
No one is laughing anymore at his crazy pregame wardrobe, which reminds us of Dennis Rodman and looks like it came from a Salvation Army dropoff bin.
No one is worrying anymore about his offcourt indiscretions as a young player and the negative publicity that made management cringe.
And no one is worrying anymore about his mood swings and passive attitude when things didn't go his way.
Jo has grown up, finally.
The presence of demanding coach Tom Thibodeau, a workaholic in his third season, has sped up the maturation process for the 6-foot-11 forward/center whose motor knows one speed: get out the way.
“I don't know if I had a lot to do with that,” Thibodeau said prior to Thursday's game with the Nets. “Part of it is him maturing and having a much better understanding of the NBA, what it takes and how to manage a season.
“He's a very bright kid and if he continues to work hard, he'll improve if he approaches it that way.”
With Derrick Rose missing in action during these playoffs, Noah has been an offensive threat and the Bulls' defensive MVP despite severe plantar fasciitis in his right foot which limited him to 20-25 minutes the first two games with Brooklyn.
“It feels like you have needles under your foot while you're playing,” he said prior to Game 3. “You can imagine. You need to jump. You need to run. You need to do a lot of things while playing basketball.
“You don't want needles on your feet, right?”
Noah finished fourth in the NBA's defensive player of the year balloting, an award he is likely to win one day if he stays healthy. He claims personal awards don't matter; that winning is his priority at the moment.
“It's not time to exhale right now,” he said.
Noah's 11 points and 10 rebounds helped even the series Monday, 90-82, and it was obvious the sixth-year pro was gutting it out every minute of the 25:29 he played.
“Big fourth quarter (9 points, 6 rebounds), multiple effort, hustle, good energy, just all the things he brings to our team,” Thibodeau said. “A lot of intangibles.”
The Bulls would need that and much more from everybody in uniform for Game 3.
Though Noah never expected to hear it after missing eight consecutive games late in the season and 12 of the last 15, Chicago's playoff hopes rest squarely on his broad shoulders.
“Jo has done a lot of great things for us these last three years,” Thibodeau said. “The fact is, he's really willing it now.”
That's what true warriors do, which is why there are so few today.
This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org