ATLANTA -- Joakim Noah stood in the Chicago Bulls locker room dressed in orange pants and a tan shirt, talking to his teammates about the one song he wanted to hear being played at some point in the night.
Welcome to Miami.
Noah was one of several Bulls players who was disappointed that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh decided to sign, or in Wade's case, re-sign with Miami last summer. He felt slighted, like he wasn't somehow good enough for James, the man who never got back in touch with Noah when the young center reached out to him about possibly playing for Chicago.
Like a lot of fans, he disliked the way the Heat were constructed. All the pomp and circumstance that went along with the free agent signings went against what he wanted the Bulls to stand for -- a gritty roster built around a budding superstar in Derrick Rose.
As soon as "The Decision" was made, Noah realized that his team would have to get through Miami in order to achieve its goal of winning a championship. And he knew in order to do that, the Bulls would have to work harder than any team in the NBA.
“I think it’s about our team, and that’s going to be the strength of our team … what everybody can bring to the table,” Noah told ESPN Chicago last August. “To beat those stars in Miami, that kind of star power, it’s going to come down to our best players like D-Rose to our last guy off the bench.
“You look at those championship teams [like the Lakers], Sasha Vujacic was the one who clinched it at the end of the game. So everybody on a championship team has to be into it. Everybody has to be into it for the right reasons, and I think that’s the way we’re going to win is to all be on the same page and all have a common goal and that’s to win.”
Given the way this season has unfolded, it was as Noah saw into the future. The Bulls have gotten to this point by being the type of team he envisioned. Rose, the league's MVP, has taken his game to new heights, the new Bulls have meshed well with the old ones, and the team's bedrock has continuously been its hard-charging defense, under the direction of Tom Thibodeau.
The Bulls got to where Noah thought they could, but now the question becomes can they get past the team they wanted to take down the most? Can a team with one superstar and a slew of solid players beat a team with two superstars and a handful of solid players?
We will find out the answer to that question over the next few weeks, but one thing the players do know is that any success the Bulls have had against the Heat is meaningless now. Yes, they won all three regular season games against Miami, but it was by a total of eight points. Plus, James didn't play in the first game and Noah didn't play in the second.
"The playoffs is a whole different game," Noah said after Thursday night's win. "Nobody's undermining their skill and what they bring to the table. It's going to be a war, and we're excited for it."
Despite what the players say, the ironic thing is that the common theme in all three regular season games won't be that much different in the playoffs. The Bulls and Heat played some extremely physical games in the regular season. Each game was a battle, and it came down the final possessions each time.
The regular season games between these two teams felt like playoff games. That's why Thibodeau unleashed a fist pump after his team's victory in Miami. That's why Rose found his brother on the floor in Miami and gave him a huge hug. That's why, according to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, some Miami players were crying in the locker room after that game.
That kind of emotion only comes out in games that mean a little more, and there's no question when you watched how hard both teams played against each other, that the games between the two meant a little more. Now it's up to each of them to find out just who wants it the most. Despite what critics will say over the next few days, the Bulls like the way things are headed right now.
"One thing about our team, we've got great guys, and we've got a good coach in Thibs," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said Thursday night. "It's really going to come down to us locking in and letting him guide us. He's been guiding us the whole year long, creating good defensive schemes. We're going to just have to lean on him."
In many ways, the Bulls are back in a more comfortable role. They will be viewed as the underdog again, the team that isn't good enough to win a seven game series against the big boys. The team that doesn't have enough to match up against the star power that James, Wade, and to a lesser extent, Bosh, will bring every night. That's OK by the Bulls and by Noah. He knew this day would come. He knew, even way back in August, that his team was good enough to compete for a title.
“If that’s not the goal, I’d be really upset if anybody on our team thought anything less,” Noah said over the summer. “With everything that we’ve got in place, of course I think there’s a lot of question marks, but I think we’ve got a lot of talent, and it’s going to be really exciting. I think we’re going to compete against the best of them, and that’s what it’s all about. To me, it’s just being in a position to compete against the big boys -- that’s all I want. At the end of the day, it’s yours against mine, and I like my chances.”
Noah got his wish. Now it's time for he and his teammates to prove they can be better than the team they've wanted to beat more than any other all year. If they do that, Noah will be singing a different tune in a few weeks.
We are the Champions.