CHICAGO -- The Bulls didn't lose Monday night's game against the Minnesota Timberwolves when the final buzzer sounded. In reality, they probably lost the game about 20 minutes before it even started. That's when their emotional leader, Joakim Noah, walked slowly out of the United Center with his head wrapped in a scarf. Noah, who hadn't been feeling well for the previous couple of days, came to the game in hopes that he could play, but with a six-game swing south and west staring him and his teammates in the face, he decided it was best to go home and get some rest.
Coach Tom Thibodeau would not agree with the notion that the Bulls didn't have a chance without Noah, but the box score tells a different story. The Timberwolves, led by Kevin Love and his 31 points, had their way down low most of the night. They were the more aggressive team and they set the tone. Amid all his usual talk about the Bulls still having enough, and not doing enough down the stretch, even Thibodeau acknowledged what many in attendance already knew: The Bulls aren't the same team, or even close to it, without the curly-haired center in the middle.
"When you lose a guy like Jo," Thibodeau said, "your margin of error is smaller."
Of course, Thibodeau then tried to spin the fact that his team still had enough talent to finish this contest off -- but the players know better. Maybe in years past, the Bulls could afford to play without Noah for a little bit and still win games, but not this year. Without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, Noah is the man who sets the tone on both ends. He's the guy who helps set up the offense, and he's the defensive anchor Thibodeau doesn't want to play without.
"Whenever you lose an All-Star, you're going to feel it," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "He was playing real phenomenal. He's one of our vocal leaders on the court. Rebounding, playing defense, controlling the offensive end as far as making plays for guys. But like we say, things like that are going to happen. It's always up to the group and the guys behind just to gather up and try to push forward."
The problem for the Bulls is that they just don't have enough talent to win games against better competition. Without Noah and Kirk Hinrich (hamstring), they don't have enough offense, or defensive firepower, to make mistakes. They made too many against Love & Co., and it showed.
"Jo does so much on offense and on defense," Bulls guard Jimmy Butler said. "He can guard so many positions, you can switch him onto guys, he rebounds, passes the ball well. Just the energy and the leadership that he brings, it's just tough not having him out there."
Aside from all the offensive and defensive differences Noah makes, the Bulls probably miss him the most as the leader who keeps everyone else in check. When Deng left, Noah knew he had to become more of an emotional stabilizer for his team -- a fact in which he takes great pride. Without him in the building Monday night, the Bulls didn't have that veteran presence they needed to even things out.
"It's a big loss," Gibson said. "It's a big loss, but we always try to just push it to the side. Things in the NBA happen, the next guy has to step in. And the group as a whole, we have to just maintain until whoever comes back comes back. Nobody's going to feel sorry for you in this league. It was a tough one tonight, we just got to shake it off."
The key for the Bulls is to make sure Noah gets healthy as quickly as he can. They start a two-week, six-game road trip Wednesday in San Antonio. If Noah can't play, they won't have much of a chance to win.
"That's one thing about this league," Gibson continued. "There's always a game tomorrow. You just got to shake this one off."
The Bulls' fighting spirit remains strong, but if Noah can't play, it won't matter. He is the heart and soul of this team, and his teammates know it.