MIAMI -- Joakim Noah didn't try to downplay the importance of Friday night's 96-89 win over the Miami Heat. He didn't spit out a cliche about how each game means the same and this was just another one in the meat grinder of an NBA season.
This game meant more to Noah and his teammates because of all the things they have had to endure this season. There weren't many who even gave the Bulls a chance to win without Derrick Rose, that's why Noah sat inside his locker and savored the moment so much. That's why he and his teammates wore smiles that won't fade away for a while. They thrive on being the underdogs and doing things they're not supposed to do.
"We needed it," Noah said. "We haven't been playing our best basketball and this is probably our biggest win of the year against the defending champs. It feels good."
Noah spoke for his whole team. The amount of pride the Bulls took in beating LeBron James and company was palpable inside the visitor's locker room in American Airlines Arena late Friday night. As the players made plans to hit the South Beach clubs later, they reflected on their biggest achievement to date. The win over Miami capped off a roller coaster week for the Bulls in which they lost to Charlotte Bobcats on Monday, a team that had lost 18 straight games; beat the Orlando Magic and then knocked off the Heat. After such an up-and-down season, the Bulls realize that a win over Miami could change the direction of their year.
"They all count the same, but if you can get big wins like this and build on them and not take steps back I think they can have big meaning," Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich said. "I'm not saying this is it, or it isn't it, but in any season I think there's turning points and wins or losses in the season that can definitely give you momentum."
This win will give the Bulls big momentum for a multitude of reasons. Carlos Boozer scored 27 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and played with the type of energy that fans have been begging for since he came to Chicago. Given the circumstances, it was probably his best game as a Bull. Noah scored 13 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in 37 minutes after not doing anything for the past five days because of the flu. Nate Robinson came in and made several huge plays down the stretch, scoring 13 points off the bench and giving the Bulls the spark they needed.
It was the type of team effort that has defined the Thibodeau era and one the veteran coach was proud of. As usual, Thibodeau wanted his team to move past its biggest win and focus on what's ahead.
"For us, I think the big thing is to focus on our improvement," Thibodeau said. "And so we don't want to get wrapped up in, ‘This one carries over,’ and you're not thinking about your next game. Just concentrate on improvement each and every day and that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to get better, get ready for our next opponent, keep building, hopefully play our best basketball down the stretch."
That's the beauty of this win for the Bulls. It shows them a glimpse of what's to come. They know Rose is going to come back at some point in the second half of the season and they know they are doing a better job of playing together. The Bulls may not be the team they used to be, but they are a much better squad than many have given them credit for -- and Friday's win only reinforced that point.
"As long as we stay hungry, we stay driven, stay humble, I think the sky's the limit," Noah said. "We just got to play for the right reasons, play for each other and if we play for each other I think that the sky's the limit. And we know that our best basketball is going to come when Derrick comes back as well. It's good (stuff), man. It's good, (stuff)."
The Bulls are now 6-2 in the regular season over the past three seasons against the Heat. Will they be able to knock off Miami in the playoffs? The odds still seem to be stacked against them this season with the uncertainty of Rose's knee, but don't try telling that to Noah and his teammates. They've learned the most important lesson of all already this season.
"We know we can beat the best," Noah said. "We can lose to the worst -- it happened in the same week. At the end of the day you've just got to enjoy the process and we're going to enjoy it."