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Joakim Noah isn’t the best player in the NBA. We know that. Nobody is saying he is. But what exactly is a Most Valuable Player? Someone whose passion, enthusiasm and model inspires an entire team, if not a city? Someone whose will, desire and determination helps a team become more than it is supposed to be and perhaps eventually as much as it hopes to become? There are others more talented, though arguably no one more valuable.
“This is what you play basketball for,” said an ebullient Noah after the Bulls’ thrilling 95-88 overtime victory Sunday over the Miami Heat. “I’m loving it; I’m having a great time. I’m having a blast out there. Beating Miami. I don’t care if it’s regular season; it’s always special.”
It’s games like Sunday’s on national ABC-TV that make the NBA special, make sports special, to see players compete at that level with that frenzy, straining and stretching the limits of their resolve and commitment to achieve just that much more for victory.
It hardly was Noah alone even with his 20 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and five blocked shots.
Jimmy Butler with 16 points, 11 rebounds and four steals had one for the ages, a strip of a driving LeBron James taking the ball to the basket with one second left in regulation in a tie game and knocking the ball away from a stunned James.
There was D.J. Augustin, flummoxed as badly as he’s ever been the last time the Bulls played the Heat, in a Feb. 23 loss in Miami when he shot zero for 10 and what began a four-game slump in which he shot 19 percent. Augustin led the Bulls with 22 points, including the three pointer that started a fourth quarter comeback from 11 behind and the three pointer to open the overtime after which the Bulls never trailed. Augustin is averaging 20.2 points and shooting 52 percent the five games since.
There was Taj Gibson, so sick with food poisoning he hasn’t eaten in three days, but getting seven points and 10 rebounds, including an offensive rebound over everyone that led to the Augustin overtime three and a violent slam dunk that gave the Bulls an 84-82 lead with 2:08 left in overtime.
There was Kirk Hinrich with 11 points, including an unlikely running left handed layup off a Noah handoff that tied the game at 86 with 20.1 seconds left in regulation leading to the Butler defensive play.
“I’m proud of my teammates,” said Noah, who was in special form with a running, challenging dialogue with Miami players, regularly urging on the tumultuous crowd that included his tennis champion father, Yannick. “That’s what it’s all about, competing, and I feel we’re competing every night and giving everything we’ve got. Even when things were not going our way we kept fighting.”
It’s once again what is making this a special, if not ultimately ideal, season for the Bulls. One of the post game story lines among some media members was that the Bulls can beat Miami now, but what about in the playoffs? Maybe the Bulls won’t. Maybe they won’t even get that far.
But that misses the point about what is wonderful about these kinds of games and why it is both lesson and challenge.
There is always something worth playing for and doing in sports and in life. And the better you do it, the better it makes you. And to do it in front of a national audience and a thrilled home crowd both makes a statement of who you are and what you also can become…