Noah, Deng cherishing All-Star together

HOUSTON -- As the rest of the Eastern Conference All-Stars began stretching in a line at Saturday practice, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah remained a few paces away from everybody else.

The Chicago Bulls teammates were trapped in their own conversation, trying to savor a moment in their careers they knew may not come again. They were getting their work done -- a couple of steps away from the group.

In many ways, the entire scene represented their feelings on the game itself.

Noah and Deng were happy to be chosen from among the best players in the world for Sunday's big-ticket affair at the Toyota Center, but they know there are bigger things to accomplish.

"It's an unbelievable honor to be a part of this," Noah said Saturday. "But I think the moments that define you are in the playoffs. These are just festivities; there's just a big circus around this.

“But at the end of the day, I think the moments that define you are the moments that make people happy, and people are happy when they win in the playoffs."

Deng mirrored the sentiment, and it might as well be a team mantra as the pair gets set for the actual All-Star Game Sunday night.

Deng and Noah might be the most unlikely duo in Houston this weekend: They don't have the types of games that are conducive to a free-wheeling exhibition. They aren't flashy. They don't have many highlight-provoking performances.

But they play hard, and they play to win. It's a trademark of their coach, Tom Thibodeau. But it's also what has made both players rise to the highest level in basketball. They have played in a system that allows them to feature their skills, and it's something both players appreciate about Thibodeau’s coaching style.

Noah and Deng aren't just unlikely All-Stars because of the way they play; they're unlikely All-Stars because there were times in their careers when fans thought they were never going to live up to the potential the Bulls forecasted for them. Then, Thibodeau entered the picture and changed things for the better … for both of them.

"With the way we play, as hard as we play, I think people got a better understanding of what my game is," Deng said. "Someone who was watching the Bulls, who doesn't know exactly what we're doing, you might just want me to score or doing something great.

“But when you watch the way we play now with the Bulls, you kind of understand the little things I do here and there -- guarding different positions, rebounding, scoring -- and it's helped me a lot. The system has helped me a lot just for people to see that my game is not just one thing in particular."

The thing about Deng's statement is that if his name was substituted for Noah's, little would change. Thibodeau's system has allowed both players to thrive and become better. Their progression has also helped make their friendship even stronger. It's obvious in watching them over the past few days that both men have taken Thibodeau's advice and have been enjoying their time amongst the stars.

"I don't know a lot of hippies, but he's just free-spirited, man," Deng said of Noah. "A guy who loves life. He loves his life. He respects people. I think a lot of people get lost in his energy sometimes and get annoyed by him because they don't know him. But off the court he's one of the nicest guys you want to be around and one of the funniest guys, and he would not disrespect anyone."

But even Deng playfully admits that he and Noah have been almost too close on and off the floor this weekend.

"I love Jo," Deng said. "That's my buddy. That's my teammate. I love him as a teammate, but I've been spending too much time with him the last few days. A lot of people need this All-Star break to get away from their teammates a little bit, and the one you want to get away from the most is who you're stuck with … nah, I'm happy."

It would be tough for anyone in Houston to be as happy as Noah has been the past few days. His self-dubbed, “boys’ trip” includes some of his closest friends, his father, Yannick, and his mentor, Tyrone Green. The relationship between the younger Noah and his tennis star father is something the Bulls center reflected on Friday.

"I'm very lucky to have a father who was a professional athlete, because we have a lot of things in common," Joakim said. "Throughout my journey in basketball I always have somebody that I can talk to in my father, and I know how hard he had to work as an athlete. And I don't think I would be in this position right now if it wasn't for the way he taught me how to work."

What has he learned most from his father?

"I would say the biggest quality I probably got from my father is his work ethic," Noah said. "He's always been a hard worker. He played with a lot of fire when he was a tennis player and somebody who didn't have a good backhand, didn't have a good forehand, very weird or unorthodox kind of style when he played tennis. And people kind of say the same thing about me, so I'm proud of that."

Pride may be the overwhelming emotion both men have been exuding recently.

They are proud of the fact they are here. They are proud of the success that characterizes their games and for which they have been recognized. They are proud they are representing so many people around the world besides their families. They are proud the Bulls have continued to win despite not having Derrick Rose. But, maybe most of all, they are proud they have made it to the All-Star game together.

It's an honor that both men will remember and cherish for the rest of their lives, especially since few would have predicted such a pairing just a few short years ago -- when both were struggling with injuries and the pressure that comes with heavy expectations.