Noah's emotion a catalyst, if kept in check

NEW YORK -- The questions are as predictable as Joakim Noah's effort on a night-to-night basis. They are issued every evening. And the answers are similar, if not identical.

When the media congregates around an opposing coach a couple of hours before tipoff, Noah's game and his emotional investment into his team are the focal point of any conversation.

Coaches who have to prepare for Noah heap praise upon him. Like Derrick Rose before him, the Chicago Bulls' center has become the player whom coaches love to talk about -- and field the most questions about.

In all the ways that Noah has taken the mantle as the face of the Bulls' franchise this season, this particular formality may be the most telling. The emotional 29-year-old is at the center of every discussion.

"It's a skill to play as hard as he does," Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer said before a game recently.

"He's just gotten better in every area since he's been in the league," Minnesota Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said before a contest earlier this week.

Noah plays with the type of passion that coaches throughout the league wish all their players exuded nightly. His fire -- and his desire to win -- fuels the rest of his teammates.

But with the emotion come the occasional struggles, Noah admits.

And it’s that excitement he must keep in check on Sunday night as he leads his team into the biggest game of its season against the team he grew up cheering for in the New York Knicks.

"All the time," Noah said recently of working on trying to keep those emotions balanced. "All the time. I am an emotional player. Sometimes it backfires on me. I think that's just part of the process.

“I just have to do a better job of keeping my emotions in check, sometimes knowing when to let them out and knowing when to stay calm, keep my cool, especially in pressure situations."

Fortunately, Noah has been able to do that throughout much of the season. Along with the brilliance of Tom Thibodeau's defensive schemes, Noah’s work is the single biggest reason why the Bulls are on the verge of locking up the third seed in the Eastern Conference -- should they win their last three games. It would be feat that seemed absurd just a few short months ago when Rose went down with another season-ending knee injury and Luol Deng was traded to Cleveland.

Noah's presence in the locker room and ability to take on more of a mentoring role with his teammates are just as important as the threat he could go off for a triple-double every time he sets foot on the floor.

To be sure, Noah is playing the best basketball of his career right now. But it is Noah’s ability to lead that is the reason why Thibodeau speaks with his own high praise any time his center’s name is brought up.

"When you talk about leadership -- OK, what is leadership?" Thibodeau said after Wednesday's win over the Timberwolves. "Well, it's more by what you do than what you say. I think when you make great effort, great hustle plays, those things unite and inspire your team. And that's what makes him who he is and that's why he's so good."

There's more, though. Much more, in Thibodeau's eyes.

The veteran coach respects the way Noah works because he knows the time and effort he's poured into his game. The work ethic that has been the bedrock of Thibodeau's tenure in Chicago is what continues to push Noah.

"But he's never satisfied," Thibodeau continued. "He's a very talented guy; to try and say that he's not talented, you're selling him short. He's very talented. He's very smart. He's very driven.

"So when you combine those things, those types of guys always improve. And so I think he's gotten real comfortable. He knows his teammates well; he knows their strengths. He knows the league well. He knows how to take advantage of things."

Noah also knows that as the Bulls begin their stretch drive into the postseason, he must continue to toe the line between being passionate and going overboard with his emotions. It's a balancing act that will be crucial for the Bulls over the next few weeks -- and he knows it.

The proud big man has consistently brushed off the talk that he's done more on and off the floor because of Rose's injury. The reality for the Bulls is that he's done more of everything, in every area.

Noah won't admit it, but he is emboldened by the confidence those around him have shown in him. His confidence has grown because of their faith in him.

"I think my teammates have confidence in me," he said. "My coach has confidence in me. I'm just trying to make plays for my teammates. And I know their tendencies pretty well, knowing where they want the ball, knowing what their strengths are."

The emotion Noah continues to show is one of the Bulls' biggest strengths. He's just got to make sure as the final week of the season arrives that it doesn't turn into a weakness.