LOS ANGELES -- The most important decision Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau made during Sunday afternoon's 92-86 triumph over the Los Angeles Lakers came with 6:52 left in regulation. That's when Joakim Noah, the anchor of Thibodeau's defense, picked up his fifth foul and turned toward the bench waving a Dikembe Mutombo-esque finger in Thibodeau's direction. Although Thibodeau would say later that Noah has no power when it comes to lineup decisions, the veteran coach acquiesced after seeing his center pleading with him to stay in the game.
"I thought [the game] was too tight," Thibodeau said of the decision to leave Noah in. "Either we were going to win it with him or that was going to be it. At that point, I didn't think we could afford two or three minutes [without him]. We rolled the dice, and we were fortunate."
Thibodeau, as he has done so often during the past month, bet on Noah -- and won. The emotional center proceeded to score four more points down the stretch. He finished the game with 20, but it was his jumper in the final 12 minutes that he was most proud of.
"I'm just happy it went down," Noah said. "Because I know that my jump shot is so ugly that when I knock it down it's demoralizing to the other team. It was a big jump shot for me."
Aside from Noah's jump-shooting technique, what has to be most demoralizing for any team these days is the way that he and Taj Gibson can take over games on either end of the floor at times. With Carlos Boozer (left calf strain) out of the lineup again, Noah and Gibson have become even more of a dynamic force. They combined for 38 points, 19 rebounds and six assists against a depleted Lakers squad.
"They're huge," Thibodeau said of the pair. "They're huge because they're tough on both sides of the ball. The way Taj now is going in the post. Jo and Taj are elite defenders, so that gets you established there, but, offensively, that's where their growth has really come and Jo's getting comfortable putting it on the floor. He's always been a very good playmaker. His energy's been terrific."
As much as Noah continues to shine -- he's headed to his second straight All-Star Game later this week -- it's Gibson's continued improvement that makes him beam with pride. He knows that Gibson put in the work this summer to get even better, and it's easy to see how much that work is paying off.
"I think Taj is playing great basketball," Noah said. "And I think that the more he plays the better he's going to get, too. I think he still has -- the sky's the limit for Taj. I think that once he gets his playmaking down, I think it's going to get really ugly because he can really score the ball in a lot of different ways for us right now and I think he's just getting better."
The close friends trust each other on the floor and seem to know exactly where they will be on either end. It's a partnership that has buoyed the Bulls all season, but especially after Derrick Rose went down and Luol Deng was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Thibodeau might get contributions from other players on different nights, but it's Noah and Gibson he relies on the most.
"Taj has been terrific," Thibodeau said. "The things that he's doing -- making plays out of the post, showing great patience, even the ones he missed tonight I thought he was getting a good shot up. He didn't get calls, but he didn't allow that to fluster him. He just kept going on."
That seems to be his mindset with everything these days. The happy-go-lucky big man has improved his game to a point at which Thibodeau said recently that he should be considered for the sixth man of the year award, the most improved player award and the All-Defensive team at the end of the season.
Gibson is just trying to take it all in stride and enjoy the ride with Noah.
"The chemistry there is just fun," he said. "I'm just having fun, man. That's the main thing. With the ups and downs, you've got so many negatives going against you. Sometimes, like Coach Mike [Wilhelm], he's been one of the strong suits in helping me and getting my game right. He's just been telling me to smile, happy shots, happy thoughts. Don't worry about that [other stuff]. Just have fun. And you look at it, how we're playing and how Jo and everybody's been playing. We're just having fun."