His name is Joakim, he’s carrying the will

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Joakim Noah operates in a weird nexus of over and underrated. His actual consistent play by play work can vary greatly. He drifts in and out of plays and those nights where he simply doesn’t have it happen more often than you’d like. But when he does make an impact, he seems to shift the entire tone of the game. Al Horford, his partner from the Florida championship team, has become an All-Star, while Noah has struggled with injury and even been yanked by Thibs down the stretch a few times. But then there are those games where Noah brings it, as he did in the final two games of the Hawks series (despite Omer Asik and Taj Gibson closing out Game 5), and most notably Game 6 against the Celtics in 2009.

Entering the Conference Finals, Noah is in a prime position to put himself on the map. He can go beyond “that guy with the hair who hates Kevin Garnett” and become the swing player that helped Chicago down the mighty (and villainous, if you’re into terrible narratives) Heat. Because Joakim Noah is the best center in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Noah will be matched up with Chris Bosh defensively for most of this series so that Carlos Boozer never has to do anything resembling defending anyone with offensive capability. We saw how that worked out in the first two rounds. Noah gets the task of bodying up Chris Bosh, which is going to be a pendulum in this series. Whichever oft-questioned, toughness-doubted, franchise-abandoning power forward gets the leg up in this series will provide another offensive weapon to the two top-heavy teams. Noah’s grating, physical style will be geared to get under Bosh’s skin and force him into making bad decisions.

But let’s stop with X’s and O’s and take a look back at the Joakim Noah moment.

That was the most Joakim Noah moment ever, with the only possible exception his legendary speech following the NCAA championship (you should know the one I’m talking about; if you don’t, look it up). Those are the types of plays that define a career, and so far it has defined Noah’s. A ridiculous combination of impeccable timing, explosive energy, and raw emotion. The Bulls need those moments regularly from Noah in this series.

The Bulls aren’t as talented as the Heat. They may be better, overall, especially on the defensive end. But they aren’t as talented. They’ll need to thrive on emotion and use those types of resilient plays. Noah’s like gasoline on the Bulls’ bonfire. Without it, they’re just rubbing kindling together.

Noah’s tireless, and though he often tries to be more versatile than he actually is, he also is capable of making plays that force you to s say “I didn’t know Noah could do that” whether it’s a mid-range jumper, a sweeping hook, or some sort of gangly inside move. He yells like Boozer, only with the actual defensive prowess and effort that would justify it.

Noah’s been in Chicago through the rebuilding process. He’s basically a Rose apostle at this point. He survived a Melo trade scare. He’s a folk hero in Chicago and when/if he blocks LeBron in this series, he’ll have songs written about him and they’ll have to change the Billy Goat to the Noah. The guy who built the arc will be less famous afterwards. Noah’s been succeeding at every level in the face of doubt for years. This is his opportunity to put his big ol’ frazzy haired stamp on the league.

Devin Booker calls out Enes Kanter’s defense after Suns beat Knicks

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In a Knicks’ win over the Suns last January, Enes Kanter irritated Devin Booker into pushing him. The Phoenix guard got ejected then had to deal with Kanter’s online trash-talking afterward.

So, this retweet – following the Suns’ win over New York last night – was nearly a year in the making.

Booker:

There are two possible responses here. I’m not sure which is correct.

1. Booker shouldn’t criticize anyone else’s defense before looking in the mirror.

2. Kanter’s defense is so bad, even Booker is mocking it.

James Harden on double-stepback uncalled travel: ‘What do you want me to say? Tell on myself?’ (video)

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James Harden is difficult enough to defend when officiated correctly.

When he can get away with this? There’s nearly no stopping him. That was a big uncalled travel in the Rockets’ win over the Jazz last night.

Harden, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“What do you want me to say? Tell on myself?” Harden said.

Fair.

Unlike that call.

Three Things to Know: Rockets beat Jazz behind Harden’s 47, has Houston turned it around?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Rockets beat Jazz behind James Harden’s 47, is Houston turning it around? It was a “battle” of the two most disappointing teams in the Western Conference — just about every pundit (myself included) projected the Rockets and Jazz to finish second and third in the West in some order. They came into the night 10th and 13th in the West — both out of the playoffs if they started today.

And both needed a win — in the tight Western Conference any game between playoff contenders counts double (and there seems to be a game or three like this every night now).

Houston got the win, 102-97, because MVP James Harden showed up and took over: 47 points, six rebounds, five assists, and five steals.

That’s the second time in four days Harden has been in vintage form, he dropped 50 on the Lakers and frustrated them just days before. Harden is the master and showing the ball and drawing fouls, and he has the best step-back in the game — although this one was more than a gather and step. Harden got away with one.

The Rockets have now won four in a row, are over .500 at 15-14 for the first time since Nov. 23rd. They are just half a game back of the final playoff slot in the West.

Have the Rockets turned it around?

Depends on how you define “turned it around.”

The Rockets offense has been elite and their defense average — which is a big step up, they are still fifth worst in the league on the season — in these four games. Harden has taken over two of them. That recipe, if it continues, should get Houston into the playoffs in the West. In that sense, they have turned it around, they are performing at the level of a playoff team, which is a step up.

But just making the playoffs was never the goal in Houston — this was a team that was ahead of Golden State at halftime of games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals last season and within a step of reaching the Finals (and winning a ring). This season they wanted to take that next step.

The Rockets aren’t at that level yet, and this roster — as currently constructed — cannot get there. Houston was a top-10 defense last season and this roster has not shown it can get near, let alone sustain, that level. Houston’s defensive switching isn’t as smooth as a season ago, and teams are attacking it differently (not just trying to post up Harden or Chris Paul). Houston doesn’t have the personnel on this roster to adapt and thrive against the way the NBA is adjusting, they are thin at the wings, and come the playoffs they are farther away from Golden State, not closer.

Which is why everyone expected them to go harder for a Trevor Ariza trade, not only do they miss him the Rockets need wing help and he’s the best one available. They didn’t. And here we are:

Houston is playing a lot better, but not at the level they had hoped. If you want to call that turning it around, go ahead.

2) Milestones night in Bay Area: Stephen Curry reaches 15,000 points, Kevin Durant passes Larry Bird on the all-time scoring list. For Stephen Curry, it appropriately happened on a deep pull-up three — he passed the 15,000 point mark in his career.

Curry is the fifth Warrior to score 15K all in a Warriors’ uniform, and the other names are all legends and Hall of Famers: Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Paul Arizin and Chris Mullin. Chamberlain scored the most as a Warrior at 17,783, a number Curry likely passes next season.

With all the attention paid to Curry — still the golden child for Bay Area fans — nobody seemed to notice Kevin Durant passed Hall of Famer Larry Bird for 33rd on the all-time scoring list during the same game. (Durant is 38th if you count ABA scoring in the mix, just for the record.) KD is going to finish way up that list by the time his career ends.

By the way, the Warriors cruised past the Grizzlies 110-93 in the kind of easy win Golden State hasn’t seen enough of this season.

3) Taj Gibson doesn’t need two shoes to play good defense. Credit Tom Thibodeau for coming up with a new way to play defense.

Taj Gibson had the ball in his hands and had gone at the Kings’ Nemanja Bjelica in the post, eventually scoring but losing his shoe. Gibson picked up his shoe and ran back down the court with it in his hands, but Sacramento pushed the ball back up the floor and decided to have Bjelica attack the one shoe/one sock Gibson.

Gibson was up to the challenge and got a little help from Karl-Anthony Towns.

Pretty sure that’s coming up in a Kings’ film session.

Report: Suns to waive Austin Rivers, who becomes unrestricted free agent

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The Phoenix Suns need a ball handling guard to go next to Devin Booker, so when they picked up Austin Rivers as part of the Trevor Ariza trade with Washington it made some sense. Rivers is a below replacement level NBA player (who has been serviceable the past couple of seasons), but that’s an upgrade over what the Suns had.

Except Rivers didn’t want to be part of the rebuild in Phoenix. In an unusual and unexpected move, the Suns have agreed to waive him, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

It’s an odd move on a few levels. Why didn’t Rivers want to stay in a place the ball would be in his hands more, giving himself a chance to build up his value before free agency next summer? Why didn’t the Suns first try to shop him around and offer to take on another team’s bad/dead contract if they got a pick or other asset? (Rivers can’t be packaged with another player in a trade but he can be moved straight up.)

Finally, how much demand is there among good teams for Rivers, even on a minimum contract?

Rivers, the son of Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers, is in his seventh NBA season. Rivers is averaging 7.2 points per game on 39.2 percent shooting this season.

It’s an odd move. Without Rivers Suns will keep leaning on rookie De'Anthony Melton as a potential future backcourt mate with Booker and hope he develops into something.