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Bulls center Joakim Noah just might be best big man in East

Bulls center Joakim Noah is no longer just high-energy guy; he’s versatile big man who keeps getting better better. |

Bulls center Joakim Noah is no longer just a high-energy guy; he’s a versatile big man who keeps getting better and better. | Pat Sullivan~AP

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TONIGHT

BUCKS AT BULLS

The facts: 7, CSN, 1000-AM.

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Updated: December 27, 2012 6:23AM



How does a player know he has arrived?

He doesn’t have to say it. Teammates will say it for him. Loudly.

“Hell yeah,’’ forward Luol Deng said emphatically when asked if Joakim Noah was the best center in the Eastern Conference.

It’s not just one teammate speaking up for another, either. There are numbers to back up Deng’s assertion.

Noah will enter Monday night’s rematch with the Milwaukee Bucks sixth in scoring among centers in the Eastern Conference (14 points per game), third in rebounding (9.7), first in assists (4.1), tied for third in steals (1.33), fourth in blocks (2.08) and first in minutes (39.2), perhaps the statistic Noah is most proud of.

That’s how Noah knows he has arrived: He’s on the court at crunch time.

That wasn’t always the case, even going back to the last few seasons, because of foul trouble or simply not being sturdy enough defensively.

Noah has stayed in that late-game mix this season along with Deng while coach Tom Thibodeau has played with the other three spots as he tries to find the right mix.

That’s the philosophy right now, like it or not.

“That’s not my decision,’’ Noah said with a laugh of the fourth-quarter personnel situation. “Sometimes I wish I could coach, but no more player-coaches? I always tell Thibs how I feel. Sometimes he listens to me, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he gives me that look like, ‘Are you [bleeping] kidding me? Are you really telling me what to do right now?’ Thibs is pretty stubborn. He’s the coach. Like I’ve said for a long time, it’s a dictatorship out here.’’

And a coup isn’t planned any time soon.

“Do I agree with his philosophy? Come on, man,’’ Noah said. “Put it this way, I want to be in there all the time. . . . I’m not answering that question, man. Trying to get me in trouble.’’

Not really. Noah’s play has assured him of a closer role. Before this season, his career high in minutes was 32.8 in the 2010-11 season.

And the idea that Noah is playing more minutes because point guard Derrick Rose is still rehabbing his surgically repaired left anterior cruciate ligament just doesn’t fly.

Noah is smart enough to stay out of foul trouble and healthy enough to guard fours and fives, and he’s the perfect guy to ugly up a game, which the Bulls are kind of making their trademark with Rose sidelined.

“It’s been tough all season,’’ Noah said. “It hasn’t been pretty, but it’s a long season, and we’ve just got to stay resilient, keep fighting.

“I’m hoping we can play better. Saturday, we were really hitting the offensive glass hard, but we shot 39 percent. That’s not very good.

‘‘But besides all that, besides all the numbers, you’ve still got to find a way to get it done and get the win. We just have to play with that grimy, tough mind-set every night, and it will put us in position to win.’’

The continued maturation of Noah only helps that cause. Gone are the days of wearing the label of “high-energy guy.’’ Or at least they should be.

“I’m an energy guy; I take pride in that, and I think that people who know the game appreciate my play,’’ Noah said. “Those who don’t, I appreciate them, too. I just want to get better.’’

So it comes back to the same simple question.

“Am I the best center in the East?’’ Noah said as he thought out loud. “I don’t know, man. You tell me.’’

That’s how you know he has arrived.



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