"Just a coach's decision," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said.
Was Noah hurt?
"He's fine," Thibodeau said. "Coach's decision."
Was Noah tired?
"Coaching decision," Thibodeau said again.
Nobody will be talking about the fact that the Bulls lost this game over the next few days. The only thing fans will wonder about is whether there is some sort of friction between the team's star center and its coach. Thibodeau opened up that possibility by benching Noah throughout most of the second half and then telling everybody Noah was physically fine.
So was Thibodeau sending a message to Noah?
I don't think there's any doubt about that. Thibodeau said after the game that he was just riding the group that brought the Bulls back from a 17-point deficit, and that part is true. He has done that in the past. What was most surprising -- and most telling -- was when Taj Gibson fouled out in overtime, Thibodeau opted to put little-used backup Nazr Mohammed into the game, not Noah. Thibodeau has made it a hallmark of his tenure not to call out any player publicly, but plenty of fans will read between the lines of his answer in regards to why he stuck with the group of Carlos Boozer, Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Jimmy Butler and Gibson so long as a challenge to Noah.
"Just the spirit, fight," Thibodeau said, when asked what he liked about that group. "We knew it was going to be a tough game coming in, and that's the way they play, a credit to them. You have to stay disciplined. You can't allow frustration to take you away from what you're trying to get done out there. It's one of those things, you got to keep battling and battling and battling. In the end, whatever's necessary, that's what you have to do to win. You got to get in the fight, it's physical. You can't get thrown around. And when you're getting smacked you've still got to be able to get your job done."
Noah didn't get that chance. After starting 5-for-5 from the field and scoring 10 points in the first quarter, it looked as if he hit a wall, and he did not score a single point after that. Maybe all the minutes he's been playing lately finally caught up to him? Maybe Thibodeau wanted to see more from him? Maybe Noah has a nagging injury the coaching staff doesn't want to divulge? Maybe he was just having a bad night? Whatever it was, Thibodeau sent a message to his leader and captain -- he needs more, even on nights when Noah doesn't have much more to give.
"Thibs just wants effort," Gibson, a close friend of Noah, said. "There's no excuses. You just got to go out there and do your job. That's the one thing about our team, we're not an excuse kind of team. We're not going to have it that way because it takes all of us as a whole to get through and make it to the playoffs. It's just one game. There's plenty more games to go. I know we're a team, we're sticking together, we're going to follow his lead, but at the same time we're just going to keep playing. One guy goes down, we just got to step up."
A few teammates said they had spoken briefly to Noah, but didn't elaborate on the conversation. The emotional big man left the locker room before reporters were allowed in, marking the first time in recent memory he's left the locker room without speaking to reporters.
Everybody can have a bad night, and maybe that's all it is, but Thibodeau's decision will hover over the Bulls for a while. With Derrick Rose out and Luol Deng nursing a hamstring injury, Noah is the unquestioned leader of the Bulls. How he responds to the benching will go a long way in determining how the next month turns out for Thibodeau and company.
"I think he was just so amped up to play in the game," Gibson said of Noah. "But you just got to go with what coach feels and learn from it and keep pushing. I think Joakim's been doing a great job all year long, and he's going to continue to learn from this game and keep pushing."
After this incident, Thibodeau better hope Noah doesn't start pushing the wrong way.