CHICAGO -- As most of the 22,000-plus United Center fans rose and roared at the end, Joakim Noah trailed the action to mid-court and pumped his fist with every step. He then stuck his thumbs underneath his Chicago Bulls jersey and popped it three times. Slowly, he backpedaled toward the visitors' bench, keeping a wide berth but drawing close enough to be noticed, and he came to a stop. Noah put his hands behind his back, pursed his lips and cast a glance at the Miami Heat. And there he stood. It took just about every tenth of every second across regulation and overtime, but Noah had nothing left to say. He got what he came for Sunday. He proved his point.
The best team in the NBA since Jan. 1 beat the defending NBA champions and extracted a few ounces of flesh while they were at it, with the Bulls' edginess running through a 95-88 victory. That it exacerbated the Heat's miseries -- Miami has lost three in a row -- was almost beside the point. This was the last word in the four-game season series between the two Eastern Conference rivals, now split two games apiece. This was a Bulls team broken down by another season-ending Derrick Rose knee injury setting its chin in a statement game. This was Noah, the emergent MVP candidate, doing everything necessary to get what he wanted against the team he most wants to beat. After a desultory effort in a late February loss in Miami, it was Noah saying the Bulls had to play with "hate" against the Heat. He was asked to assess how that went Sunday.
"We played with a looooot of hate today," Noah said, breaking into a wide, gap-toothed smile. "A lot of hate."
He unleashed a devilish laugh after he said that, so obviously delighted to vanquish Miami this way. But he was maybe just as giddy about his own team, a franchise shaped in his impassioned, gristly image. The Bulls have a league-high 23 wins in 2014 and Noah is the fulcrum of it. Conspicuously, the All-Star center was the best all-around player on the floor on Sunday, piling up 20 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks. He threatened yet another triple-double after posting three such efforts in a 22-day span from Feb. 11 to March 5. Noah revved hot and jawed with the Heat, exhorted the crowd and generally squeezed any space for capitulation out of the day, even when the Bulls faced a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit.
There is undeniable uncertainty about Rose, the former MVP, after a second knee surgery. There also is an undeniable commotion about free agency this summer and whether the Bulls could lure Carmelo Anthony and tilt the axis of Eastern Conference power to the Midwest. In the middle of all of it is Noah, compensating for Rose's absence or campaigning (privately, of course) for Anthony's addition. The franchise's most important player is the one playing with his hair simultaneously in a bun and on fire, as evidenced yet again Sunday.
"Dominant, dominant," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said of Noah's effort. "He was talking trash to them the whole night. He was in their ear the whole night, letting it be known that he was going after every rebound, he was going to try to score every time he gets it. He was really telling them everything he was going to do. I could see on their faces he was frustrating them. I think he's playing MVP-style basketball. He's our leader, and it showed. He led us to this victory."
As for where the Heat are headed, they'd like to know as much as anyone. After two straight losses, they practiced and digested film for three hours on Saturday. Before Sunday's game, a message of resiliency was literally sent around the locker room. A thin blue strip of paper was attached by paper clip to a Bulls' scouting report on the floor by LeBron James' locker stall, carrying on it a motivational bulletin: The longer we dwell on our misfortunes, the greater their power is to harm us.
And still the self-inflicted wounds proliferated. First it was surrendering 39 and 37 first-quarter points, respectively, in the two defeats prior to Sunday's loss. Having solved the problem of bad starts, the Heat now can examine a swoon at the finish; an empty final possession of regulation spilled into five straight misses and a turnover to start overtime. They also permitted the Bulls to convert 13 offensive rebounds into an eye-popping 27 second-chance points, suggesting a dip in resolve. The Heat had a double-digit lead early in the final quarter, but hardly finished what they started.
"Each game has been a little bit different, this game was different than the other two," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Right now, our mentality is to get on the plane, get back to Miami as quickly as we can. None of us feel good about this game. None of us. And we have to focus on a game (Monday). It's a quick turnaround and we'll have an opportunity to redeem ourselves."
That opportunity, of course, was right there Sunday against a team the Heat explicitly knew would perform with a serrated edge.
"They play different against us," James said. "I just watched them against Memphis (on Friday), the full game. They didn't play like this."
He knew it was the exception to the rule, thanks to the 6-foot-11 raw nerve setting the tone and the pace for the Bulls. The game was barely four minutes old when Noah was knocked to the floor after an offensive rebound. He remained there on his back, clapping, before he jumped to his feet to stoke a home crowd perhaps still a little drowsy from daylight saving time.
The Bulls' center certainly had no need for artificial energy. Midway through the second quarter, Noah was isolated on James on the wing. He began clapping as the Heat superstar and world's best player sized him up off the bounce. Noah forced a fallaway jumper from James, then raced down the court to snare an offensive rebound off a transition miss, drawing a foul on the put-back attempt. Eyes shut, head shaking, Noah stomped and screamed his way beyond the three-point line as chants of "M-V-P" cascaded down.
He's averaging 12 points, 11.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game. Only three players since 1990-91 -- Kevin Garnett, Charles Barkley and Anthony Mason -- have posted seasons averaging 12 points, 11 rebounds and 4.5 assists every night. And Noah actually averaged 7.1 assists in the 14 games previous to Sunday. "He's one of the best guys we have in our league, especially with his motor," James said after scuffling to an 8-of-23 shooting afternoon for 17 points. "He makes so many plays for their team."
While no one realistically mistakes Noah as an MVP threat to James or the Thunder's Kevin Durant -- at least not yet -- there is also no mistaking he is driving the Bulls as he never has. "This is what you play basketball for," Noah said. "I love it. I'm having a great time. I'm having a blast out there. Beating Miami, I don't care if it's regular season, it's always special."
Noah shrugged off the idea that he's leading any differently in Rose's absence. But even the player supposed to be driving the Bulls evidently realizes how the franchise's compass has a new magnetic north.
"I've never felt so confident as a basketball player," Noah said. "Derrick gives me a lot of confidence, telling me what I need to work on, the shots I have to take when he comes back, and stuff like that. It's just giving me confidence, a player of his caliber always telling me things I need to do to get better."
Rose or no Rose, Noah or no Noah, the Bulls may need another star on hand to claim Eastern Conference supremacy when it matters in the playoffs. Though not denying it, Noah previously dismissed as "gossip" an ESPN report that he began recruiting Anthony during the All-Star break. Substantive or not, the idea may be a long shot; Anthony would make $13 million less in the first year of a deal with the Bulls than he would by re-upping with the Knicks, per the Chicago Tribune's calculations.
So for now it's about Noah ingraining his biting, relentless approach into whomever else the Bulls have on hand. It's working. There was James tangled with Bulls guard Jimmy Butler under the basket in the second quarter, with Butler not-so-subtly kicking a foot toward James' recently broken nose as they wrestled to get up. One of the game officials had to pry the two apart once they were on their feet, divvying out matching technical fouls.
"Whatever happened, happened," Butler said. "I don't back down, let's just put it like that."
Nor do these Bulls, not as long as Noah has air in his lungs to scream into whatever arena he's in. He joked that, without basketball, he'd turn his energies to beer or the beach. "I'm not like this all the time," he said. But he is wondering all the time -- wondering just like the rest of the Bulls what it would be like with Rose right now, and what it will be like with him later. (And this doesn't even account for trading away former All-Star Luol Deng earlier this season.) That's the misery of it all. It is good for the Bulls at the moment. Everyone knows it could be better.
"I can't wait until the little homie comes back," Noah said, referring to Rose. "I know we have another level when that boy comes back. We're hungry, man. We're a hungry group. And that's what I want. I want everyone in this locker room, everyone who wears a Bulls jersey, to work. We're going for one thing. That's the championship. One day, I want to party in Chicago. I want to see that feels like one day."
They also know they have to go through the Heat to get there, no matter who is or isn't on the roster. That's why Noah celebrated Sunday, because it proved this exact point once again. The Bulls can beat the Heat with who they have. A seven-game series may be an entirely different challenge, but it was a one-game matter on Sunday, and the Bulls went right through the team they can't get around.
So a good 45 minutes after the game ended, behind a closed locker room door that led to the showers, there was singing. More like caterwauling, actually. It was loud and unabashed, as was its source.
The door swung open and Bulls forward Carlos Boozer sized up the pack of reporters waiting by a particular empty stall, and he smiled.
"Y'all aren't ready for that, man," Boozer said. "You're not ready for that."
Joakim Noah emerged a moment or two later. He was coming, ready or not.