NEW YORK -- Why isn't Joakim Noah playing like the Joakim Noah everyone has grown accustomed to seeing?
That's the question on every Bulls fan's mind lately – and also coach Tom Thibodeau’s.
Thibodeau spent about 10 minutes after Monday afternoon's practice at Madison Square Garden working individually with his big man on post moves. The pair had previously worked together during the summer at the Berto Center, but with Noah still slumping after returning from an ankle injury, and for that matter, since returning from thumb surgery after the All-Star break, Thibodeau thought it was time for a little extra tutelage.
"He was actually very lively today," Thibodeau said. "I think he was feeling better, his ankle was feeling better. So we got to get him going."
But why hasn't he been like that lately? Thibodeau believes it's just a case of Noah not being healthy.
"Right before the ankle injury, I thought he really started to play well," Thibodeau said. "I thought his timing was coming back. We got to get him going because we know what's coming. The extra work, I think, is good. The one thing I know about Jo is when Jo's practicing well, he's playing well. That's the first step, trying to get his practices up to speed, where he's really playing well and feeling good about his game."
For his part, Noah doesn't seem that concerned that things will come back to form, although that ankle injury is still clearly bothering him. He sat on the bench after practice with a big ice pack on the ankle.
"I just have to do better," he said. "I have to be more aggressive going to the board. I'm just trying to get my rhythm back and I'm working as hard as I can to get that back."
He was appreciative that Thibodeau went out of his way to give him some extra guidance.
"I know I need some extra work right now, so I'm just working hard and Thibs makes sure that I get my drills in and do what I need to do," Noah said.
Both men believe that Noah's timing will come back as he continues to play ... a major reason why he’ll stay on the floor in two mostly meaningless games at the end of the regular season.
"A big part of [the missed timing] is the amount of time that he missed," Thibodeau said. "Jo has great timing and great hands. So when you see him mis-time a jump, or bobble a catch, that's not him. When he's at his best, when the ball's near him, he's getting it. And he's real active with tip-ins and that sort of thing. The big thing is, I thought he was getting there prior to the ankle [injury].”
Thibodeau knows that in order for the Bulls to get to where they want to go, Noah has to start playing like his old self again.
"Jo has proven if he's right, he's 14 [points], 12 rebounds and two or three blocks. And great energy," Thibodeau said. "That's what we need. We need his energy. And we need his rebounding. We need his defense. We need his hustle plays. That's what makes him who he is. And that's what makes us a good team."
Home in NY: If Noah ends up getting back on track Tuesday night against the Knicks, it will be fitting. He loves play at Madison Square Garden and was upset he missed the Christmas Day game earlier in the year. Having spent some of his formative years in New York City, the seven footer is always excited to come back home and play in front of family and friends.
"Playing here is unbelievable to me," he said. "I remember being a little kid and sitting all the way up top and watching the games. I saw Larry Johnson hit that four-point play. I was in here. I was here when Michael Jordan came back, [scored 55] points, kicked our ass. I was in this building a lot growing up. Just being able to come here, it was the best gift you could ever give me. So being able to play in this environment, and play with the Bulls, is something that's unbelievable. And, course, playing in front of family and friends is so exciting."
The last word: Derrick Rose said after Sunday's game that he still didn't think his team was championship-ready. Thibodeau responded this way when asked how he would know when the Bulls were ready for the playoff drive:
"It's a constant battle. You're always looking at different things that you can improve upon. And the question we have to ask ourselves is, ‘Whatever it is that we're doing that particular day, is it championship caliber? Are the preparations championship caliber? Are the practice habits championship caliber? Are we coming in, thinking about our opponent, knowing our opponent well? Doing all the little things?’ That's what makes a team special. And so right now, I'd say we didn't close out as hard as we should have [Sunday]. We didn't get back in transition the way we should have. We didn't finish our defense. So there's a lot of things. And it's little things. It's mental things."