The Chicago Bulls are down 0-2 against a team they were supposed to beat. They have no home-court advantage on which to lean any longer. No Derrick Rose to lead a triumphant comeback. No premier scorer to take over down the stretch of another close game.
They do have Joakim Noah, and that's better than nothing.
But is it good enough? Can this season's Defensive Player of the Year pull a rabbit out of his hat and find the Bulls a way back into this series?
Noah is having a career season. That much is beyond dispute.
The 29-year-old averaged 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds and a remarkable 5.4 assists during the regular season. That kind of versatile production has elevated him to the top of the ranks among centers. He does it all.
Noah has even added something of a mid-range game to his repertoire, allowing him to better space the floor for Chicago. Now he's a threat to score from the elbow, either by taking the jumper or putting his head down and driving to the basket.
Few players cover as much ground—either literally or metaphorically. Noah is a rare specimen and largely responsible for the Bulls' ability to survive another season without Derrick Rose.
Now his immediate task is helping them survive this series.
Never say never. Noah has the tools and mental makeup to make the kinds of impacts that don't show up on the stat sheet. And his team has never needed those contributions like it does right now.
The good news is that Noah is one hell of a leader. He speaks his mind, inspires his teammates and does all the little things on the floor that elicit buy-in. NBA.com's Steve Aschburner explains how Noah rubs off on the rest of the Bulls:
The Bulls are better off with Noah radiating and spilling over to teammates. The talking he does defensively, to clue in forwards and guard on the defensive floor he sees in front of him, is only part of it.
'I think that’s a big aspect of his game also to get real excited when a big play goes down,' forward Jimmy Butler said, 'not if he does it but when somebody else does it. That’s part of being a leader, which he’s great at being.'
Noah wears his emotions on his sleeve—and everywhere else. If the Bulls have a chance to come back in this series, they'll need all of that emotion. They'll need to take it all in, to make it their collective lifeblood. This team is short on talent, but it has a lot of heart. And Noah keeps that heart beating.
It's only fitting then that he expressed complete and utter dismay about Chicago's present state of affairs. He expressed himself in no uncertain terms, according to the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson:
It sucks. I hate losing. Everyone on this team is giving everything that they have. I feel like they hit big shot after big shot. You have to give credit where credit is due. They're playing at a high level. Throughout the year, it hasn't been pretty at times. But we're a team that finds a way.
It's worth taking a moment to dissect Noah's disaffection. Note that there's no throwing teammates under the bus. To the contrary, Noah suggests that the Bulls are playing as hard as they can. He's offering a vote of confidence, not distributing blame.
That kind of tone could prove pivotal. Whereas tough times often lead teams to question themselves, Noah is taking a higher road. He's not happy, but he's not venting destructively.
To whatever extent Chicago has a chance, it's because of intangibles like these. The Bulls don't need to reinvent the wheel. They don't need to make sweeping adjustments. They've been in both of these games. They could easily have won Game 2.
Accordingly, the Bulls have to remain composed. They have to continue playing within Tom Thibodeau's system, believing that the things that have gotten them this far could take them still further. With Noah at the helm, it's hard to believe otherwise.
The Inside Job
Noah is as well equipped as anyone to succeed as a two-way player, impacting the game on both ends of the floor like a legitimate All-Star. He has an engine that never quits, one that allows him to pester scorers, grab rebounds, score and facilitate for others. Noah is as multidimensional as they come, fueled by what seems like a nuclear reactor's worth of energy.
That said, he has his hands full at the moment.
Nene and Marcin Gortat are putting direct pressure on Noah's defense—and on his body. Nene and Gortat are two meaty individuals. They weigh in at a combined 490 pounds, and a lot of those pounds are muscle. They're also skilled, in the low- and high-post areas alike.
That means Noah's expending more energy than usual on the defensive end, getting pushed around during some possessions, being forced to jump out and contest jumpers on others. Given the frequency with which Washington is feeding its big men, Noah has fewer opportunities to help on the defensive end—one of the things he does best.
Guarding guys who are stronger than him is not one of the things he does best.
So far Nene is averaging 20.5 points against the Bulls. He took over in overtime of Game 2, getting the Wizards out to an insurmountable lead before Chicago had scored its first bucket of the frame.
Meanwhile, Gortat is making an impact as well. Though he was unremarkable in Game 2, he scored 15 points in Game 1. His shot just wasn't falling in Game 2, but he was still getting looks close to the basket, the kind of looks Chicago just can't tolerate if it's to have a legitimate shot in this series.
The Bulls would like to think they have the interior defense to handle Nene and Gortat, but that assumption has proved dubious thus far. They simply can't afford to send help-defenders, so this will be a matchup Noah has to solve on his own. Absent the ability to outmuscle his opposition, he's going to have to be crafty—poking the ball away, drawing offensive fouls and using his length advantageously around the basket.
He has to play like a Defensive Player of the Year, and he has to do it on every possession. That sounds like a test Noah can pass, even if he's struggled thus far.
There's one thing that no amount of Noah can change. The Bulls are desperately missing a legitimate top-shelf scorer. Noah put up 20 points in Game 2, and that's about as much as you're going to get out of him. He's yet to have a truly dominant, triple-double performance, but those are especially few and far between when dealing with a postseason pace.
Noah can't transform an offense that ranked dead last in the NBA in points scored this season. He can't single-handedly spur improved execution in late-game situations. He can't change the fact that Jimmy Butler was just two of nine from the field in Game 2.
These are all things beyond anyone's control at this point.
There are one of two ways the Bulls can solve their scoring problems, and neither of them really has much to do with Noah. The team needs more from Butler and Carlos Boozer. Thibodeau might have to change his rotation to get more out of the latter, given that Boozer rarely plays many (if any) fourth-quarter minutes.
The second solution is better defense, Chicago's calling card. Given the offensive limitations endemic to this roster, the Bulls' only hope may be turning up the pressure on the defensive end, perhaps throwing some different looks at Washington's inexperienced backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal.
Noah's intensity could certainly pay collective dividends on both ends of the floor, but that won't put the ball in the basket. Chicago will have to find another way around that.