Updated: June 9, 2013 6:32AM
MIAMI — Joakim Noah wanted to apologize to the Heat.
He had taken his shots in the past, including disparaging comments about Miami’s smaller lineup trying to compete with the Bulls’ bigs: “If they think that small ball is going to work against us . . . it won’t.’’
“I was young and immature when I made those comments,’’ Noah said Tuesday, minutes after the Bulls finished their film session from their Game 1 upset in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The problem was he made those small-ball comments only three months ago.
When reminded of that, all he could do was smile.
Has Noah proved to be a warrior the last few weeks? Definitely. But there’s no question he’s still a work in progress, and that’s a good thing.
“Yeah,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said, “and I hope he continues to improve until the last year he plays in the league. I want him to have that approach. I want him to remain hungry. He’s also an All-Star now, and I think if he keeps working at it, I can see him being a defensive player of the year.
“But the most important thing about him is he plays to win, and you can’t undersell that. Jo can have five points, 10 rebounds and four blocks, have great impact in the game, and he’s happy because we won. That’s the most important thing for him.’’
And that’s also what draws Bulls fans to Noah.
Derrick Rose is still the face of the franchise, but Noah is the soul. In a city where the blue-collar mentality is still embraced, Noah might be the athlete that best exemplifies it.
Plays hurt? Check.
Plays to win? Check.
Plays with swagger? Check.
“[Noah’s] a warrior, and everybody is following him,’’ Rose said.
Noah’s playoff performance is even more amazing when you consider that a day before Game 1 of the Nets series, he was all but ruled out because of the pain in his right foot caused by the plantar fasciitis.
He described the pain as “walking on needles.’’
Then just before the Game 1 shootaround, Noah walked up to Thibodeau and said he could go.
“Are you bull[bleeping] me,’’ Thibodeau said.
Against the Nets, Noah averaged 11.6 points, 10 rebounds and 32 minutes. He was supposed to be on a 20- to 25-minute limit.
Then he went out against the Heat, played 39 minutes and had 13 points and 11 rebounds. Add in four assists and a plus-11 rating, and it smacks of a guy who just wins.
Foot problem? What foot problem?
“And I’m not taking any of these moments for granted,’’ Noah said. “When you really feel that everything you’ve worked for can be taken away from you with an injury, and then to be able to play now, I’m just so thankful to be in this situation because I know this is what I work so hard for, win or lose, to play on these stages.’’
Just don’t ask him about being the de facto leader in Rose’s absence.
“You dive for a loose ball, you change the game in that way,’’ Noah said. ‘‘You’re leading the team, so anybody can be a leader. It’s not the guy that’s talking all the time in the huddle. That’s just all bull.’’