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Bulls’ Joakim Noah illustrates why Dwight doesn’t make right

Joakim Noah shoots against Celtics’ KevGarnett during Thursday’s victory. | Nathaniel S. Butler~Getty Images

Joakim Noah shoots against the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett during Thursday’s victory. | Nathaniel S. Butler~Getty Images

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Updated: May 8, 2012 8:09AM

On a day that saw Dwight Howard embroiled in a tense controversy that torpedoed the Orlando Magic’s championship hopes, Joakim Noah was in the locker room at halftime of Thursday night’s game against the Boston Celtics, trying to figure out why the Bulls had played yet another lethargic half.

His nonstop hustle helped wipe out an 11-point halftime deficit with a second-half performance and victory that re-established the team’s identity.

‘‘We count on Jo’s energy every night,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. ‘‘He and Ronnie [Brewer] provide that — their hustle. When they make great hustle plays, it unites and inspires the rest of the team, and we can move forward, and all of a sudden everybody is active and you get out in the open court and get some easy baskets. He and Ronnie trigger that, but we need everybody.’’

If Derrick Rose’s is the Bulls’ pilot, then Noah is the engine. He’s not the dominant post player Howard is, but he helps build the concept of ‘‘team’’ that Howard seems determined to tear apart in a season when his contract status and his soured relationship with coach Stan Van Gundy have triggered his Magic’s nosedive.

Noah would have been part of any deal between the teams. The Magic would have needed a center if they had traded Howard to the Bulls, and the two national championships Noah won at Florida make him a fan favorite in the Sunshine State.

Howard not wanting to play in Chicago could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to the Bulls.

What message did players convey at halftime Thursday?

‘‘We just said we have got to play inspired,’’ Noah said. ‘‘It looked like we were kind of going through the motions and playing with our heads down. We just said, ‘Guys, let’s just have fun out there and give it everything we’ve got.’ ’’

The Bulls are perhaps the NBA’s best defensive team, and Noah, as the anchor, sets a standard that everyone else tries to match. He and Rose’s commitment to winning is at the core of a chemistry that makes this team so unique.

Rose would be seething if he had to endure the kind of drama Howard has subjected his teammates to this season.

‘‘You definitely want Derrick back out there,’’ Noah said of Rose, who could return from a groin injury when the Bulls play the New York Knicks on Sunday. ‘‘It helps, you know? [But] even when Derrick comes back, it’s not going to be easy. We’ve got a long road ahead with a lot of games, a lot of battles. Even with Derrick back, we have to play hungry.’’

Noah has extended his range, has converted 76 percent of his free throws and is averaging 9.8 rebounds per game. He will never be the prolific scorer Howard is, but when he talks about the importance of playing ‘‘Chicago Bulls basketball,’’ it resonates because he’s one of the players who defines it.

‘‘When we’re playing hard and playing for one another, we’re a different team,’’ he said.

Howard is putting up MVP-type numbers but has turned the Magic’s season upside-down. Meanwhile, in Chicago, during a critical time in the Bulls’ season, Thibodeau knows Noah will help find a solution.

‘‘That’s one of Jo’s strengths,” Thibodeau said of bringing the kind of energy the Bulls lacked during rare back-to-back losses. ‘‘We count on that. I could sense it at the half. They were ready. Sometimes you sit there and you’re searching a little bit. Some of the things that were said, I could tell we were going to be OK.’’

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