CHICAGO -- An admittedly tired Joakim Noah sat in the chair in front of his locker stall and expressed the same kind of concern that was floating around the United Center late Saturday night as the Chicago Bulls finished off a 96-85 win over the Brooklyn Nets:
Is Tom Thibodeau playing his athletes too many minutes?
Noah didn't answer the question definitively because he has a lot of respect for the veteran coach. But fans openly questioned Thibodeau and wondered why he left Noah, who continues to battle plantar fasciitis in his right foot, and Luol Deng, who is dealing with several injuries, in a game that appeared to be well in hand.
"We have a great coach, but he doesn't understand the whole rest thing yet, I don't think," Noah said. "But it's all good. We all want to win, so it's good."
Noah had a smile on his face when he said it, but the message was clear. He might have been kidding around a bit, but there was truth in his words.
Noah played 41 minutes and actually came back into the game with a few minutes left even though the Bulls were up by double figures. Deng played 44 minutes -- and all the way to the end, as well.
While both men are too proud to take themselves out of the game, the fatigue they are dealing with was palpable in the locker room.
Noah had another monster game Saturday night, scoring 21 points and pulling down 10 rebounds, but he clearly was exhausted. Deng was just three for 10 from the field and acknowledged he still might have to get a root canal in a few days after being knocked in the teeth late in Thursday's win over the 76ers.
"I'm just glad my teeth are still in there," Deng joked.
The larger issue for the Bulls is that Thibodeau is playing with fire by continuing to assign heavy minutes to the two All-Stars. Thibodeau has repeatedly said in as many words that he's not changing. He remembers watching Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen play heavy minutes throughout their careers, so if it was good enough for two of the all-time greats, why can't it be good enough for two guys who are still in their 20s?
The difference is that Jordan and Pippen proved they could handle the wear and tear of the season over and over, while Noah and Deng have repeatedly dealt with serious injuries over the past few years.
Noah admitted that the mental and physical strain of playing all those minutes is understandably taxing on both fronts.
"It's not really right after the game, but it's the next morning that's usually the roughest," Noah said.
The issue for both players is that they know they are the leaders of this team without Derrick Rose on the floor. They know that Thibodeau, and their teammates, are counting on them to set a tone for the team. But their bodies also may be starting to wear down on them.
The biggest knock on Thibodeau in his three seasons as coach is that he rides his players too hard and they have nothing left at the end of the season. With the way things are shaping up right now, it looks as if he's following the same script.
As much as Thibodeau pushes his players, the other side to this story is this: Who else is he going to play?
This strikes at the heart of why so many fans were so upset that the Bulls decided to gut the popular “Bench Mob” to maintain the notion of financial flexibility in the future. Derrick Rose has been out all season because of a torn ACL, and nobody is sure if or when he will return this season. Kirk Hinrich has been in and out of the lineup all season because of various injuries. Thibodeau doesn't trust Marquis Teague on the floor right now, so Nate Robinson has played a lot of minutes. The Bulls didn't match the offer sheet for Omer Asik and opted to sign Nazr Mohammed and Vladimir Radmanovic; Thibodeau doesn't trust either player on the floor, so that leaves Noah to play the bulk of the minutes.
Taj Gibson sprained his MCL recently and will likely be out at least another week, so that's one less person Thibodeau trusts off his already beleaguered bench. Thibodeau likes the way Jimmy Butler has played at times this season, but not enough to pry Deng out of the lineup for long stretches. Rip Hamilton just can't stay healthy, so Thibodeau has pressed Marco Belinelli into more time recently; Belinelli hasn't performed the way the Bulls would have liked. Daequan Cook and the recently signed Lou Amundson may get a few minutes down the stretch, but neither will be on the floor enough to make much of a difference.
Combine the injuries and inconsistencies with the fact that Thibodeau is one of the most stubborn coaches in the league, and it may add up to one larger problem for the last month and a half of the regular season. Consider:
The Bulls are going to go as far as Noah and Deng can carry them, but after racking up so many minutes on the floor, you've got to wonder just how much gas they have left in the tank.