CHICAGO -- Joakim Noah hates this.
He hates that he has been playing poorly. He hates that he has to come off the bench. He hates that people want to talk about his energy and effort because it's hard to be sociable when you aren't playing well and aren't playing many minutes.
So as the media descended upon his locker after his best game of the season, a game in which he scored eight points, dished out seven assists and had 11 rebounds, the always perceptive Noah knew what was coming. He deflected many of the questions and answers toward his teammates. He praised the way they played in an impressive 92-89 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Monday. But in the midst of his answers, he acknowledged what his teammates and those closest to him have known for more than a month now: Noah's adjustment from playing almost 40 minutes a night to playing about 20 minutes a night off the bench has been difficult.
"It's been very frustrating at times, but I'm blessed," Noah said. "This is an unbelievable opportunity being able to play for the Chicago Bulls. So yeah, of course -- I'm a passionate player. I get frustrated. But at the end of the day, I know that it's a blessing to play for this franchise."
The truth for the Bulls has always been the same when it comes to Noah. His teammates feed off his energy every night. When he's not playing with an edge, neither do they. When he looks sluggish on the floor, so do they. He understands this, even if he is uncomfortable acknowledging it publicly. But the reaction to Noah's play from his teammates speaks much louder than anything the emotional big man could say.
"He got his swag back," Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler said of Noah. "You can see the way he's walking around here, back there in the hot tub/cold tub. He's smiling. His spirits are high. That's the Jo that we need each and every day."
Noah has always been the soul of this group. He is the player that the rest of his teammates take their cues from. He knows that even if he isn't playing, or playing well, he still has to lock himself into the game mentally. He knows he sets the tone for the rest of the group.
"It's not good to be frustrated," Noah said. "Especially as one of the leaders of the team. There's no question about that. I have to work on my frustration to be a better example on my teammates. No question about it."
Noah hates the attention that comes with a vintage-type performance, but he's too smart not to understand his importance to the group. In many ways, Noah remains the one player everyone on this team looks up to. The Bulls appreciate Pau Gasol as a former NBA champion, but Noah's play is at the fabric of everything the Bulls have accomplished for much of the past decade.
"Jo's like a brother to me," Bulls point guard Derrick Rose said. "He works hard. He's one of the hardest workers, I think, in the league. You always got to tell him to get off the court after shootaround. Usually players go home after shootaround, he'll stay there til like two o'clock just working on his game. But it just shows his dedication, it shows the younger players how hard you have to work. The work ethic that you need to stay in this league this long and go through something. And he played great tonight, so if anything this can help his confidence."
His teammates want him to be better. Noah wants his teammates to be better. But as much as Noah tries to deflect the spotlight, the proud veteran can't lie. He wants new Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg to let him play more. He wants to be more of a difference-maker. But as a true leader, he's trying to adjust to his new role and deal with it the best he can.
"I want to play the whole game, you know?" Noah said. "I never want to come out. But I understand this is my role now and I just have to accept it and do the best that I can with what I have."