Soaring Noah reluctant to accept praise

CHICAGO – The “M-V-P” chants directed at the Chicago Bulls' Joakim Noah grew louder as a tight battle with the Sacramento Kings moved on Saturday night, reaching a crescendo with five minutes remaining when the center stole the ball and went the length of the court to make a basket while being fouled.

Noah will have a tough time grabbing the league’s top-player award away from guys such as LeBron James or Kevin Durant, but in this slice of the Midwest, he is as valuable as they come for a team making serious noise despite the losses of Derrick Rose (knee injury) and Luol Deng (trade).

Saturday was just another example of his value, as the big man scored 23 points to go with 11 rebounds -- his 34th double-double of the season -- in a 94-87 victory over Sacramento.

Noah has stepped up to cover the massive void left by a pair of All-Stars and continues to push this Bulls team into what had seemed so improbable not that long ago: Home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Yet it’s not quite a sense of accomplishment that Noah is getting when he hears fans recognize his determined play.

“I don’t like them,” Noah said of the MVP chants. “I don’t like it but that’s not what is important to me. It’s just all about this team right now. I think we’ve been through so much. It’s not about individual accolades, it’s about us and everything we’ve gone through. That’s what this season is about to me.”

Like it or not, it’s what happens when fans can see something special. Superstar status was a bit of a reach when Noah came into the league as a high-energy player willing to do all the dirty work, but he has catapulted his unique skill set into the conversation regarding the top players in the game.

In addition to his points and rebounds against the Kings, Noah recorded eight assists and five blocks, making him just one of three players this season to have turned in at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in a single game. The twist is that Noah is the only player in the NBA to have done it twice, after also hitting those marks against the Miami Heat on March 9.

“The first thing is that [Noah’s] game is through the roof right now, his confidence is through the roof,” said teammate Taj Gibson, who also was key with 19 points and nine rebounds off the bench. “The NBA is all about confidence, and when you work on your game and get that confidence going, you’re unstoppable. I feel that he’s taking it to the next level, head up with confidence.”

Gibson also lauded Noah’s leadership skills, but like Noah's reticence with embracing the MVP chants, being the Bulls' primary leader isn’t a title Noah is comfortable carrying alone.

“I think that a lot of guys need to step up in order for us to do something special, and I think a lot of guys are stepping up,” Noah said. “I just like our demeanor out there, especially at the end of the game. Every time you step on the court you learn something about our team, and today I think the best part about it was just our composure down the stretch.”

Against a Kings team that entered 19 games under .500, the Bulls struggled with the size and strength of their opponent. The Kings owned the rebounding battle, finishing with a 55-40 advantage, and in two games this season the Kings have outrebounded the Bulls 108-70.

But Noah was up for the challenge inside, going 7-of-8 from the field and 3-of-3 from the free throw line in the first half, when he was primarily matched up against the imposing 6-foot-11, 270-pound DeMarcus Cousins. His strong fourth quarter ended a full night's work.

After guarding the Houston Rockets' Dwight Howard and Cousins in back-to-back games, Noah looked spent, but the two victories seemed to make it all worthwhile.

“There are definitely easier things in life,” Noah said. “I’m just happy coming out with two big wins for us. We know Sacramento is a team that gives us fits, but we found a way tonight and that’s big.”