(MCT) — CHICAGO — There’s drama. And then there’s Hollywood.
Tom Thibodeau merely sat Joakim Noah for the fourth quarter and overtime of one game over the weekend, which created a minor stir in Bulls’ land. Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni announced before the Bulls’ 95-83 victory over the Lakers Monday night at the United Center that Pau Gasol is out as his starting power forward permanently, replaced by unheralded Earl Clark.
The Lakers have lost six straight road games for the first time in over six years, own a sub-.500 record and are in real danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
At least the Bulls sit in strong playoff position when they create headlines, which they did again on Monday when coach Tom Thibodeau said Derrick Rose is “very close” to being cleared for full contact in practice.
As for Noah, he responded with six points, 13 rebounds and a season-high six blocks against the Lakers after getting benched for the final 22 minutes, 53 seconds of Saturday’s overtime loss to the Grizzlies. Battling against Dwight Howard throughout, he succumbed to second-half foul trouble but still logged 35 minutes and responded the way Thibodeau predicted he would.
“He has responded well since I’ve been here,” Thibodeau said. “So I always expect that. I expect the best out of him.”
Kirk Hinrich scored a season-high 22 points with eight assists and seven rebounds, Marco Belinelli added 15 and Jimmy Butler, starting again for the injured Luol Deng, provided 10 points, eight rebounds and strong defense on Kobe Bryant as the Bulls forced 16 turnovers.
Bryant scored 16 points but missed 15 of 22 shots. Tied at 75-75, the Bulls pulled away with an 18-4 run during which Belinelli scored eight points and two 3-pointers and Butler drilled a jumper over Bryant.
“It’s been awhile I guess,” Hinrich said of his offensive outburst. “I feel like it’s about time. I just had it going. It seemed like every time I came off a pick-and-roll I had a good look. I was in rhythm and just letting them go.”
The Bulls sank nine of 17 from 3-point range. It’s the Bulls’ largest margin of victory over the Lakers since a 17-point triumph on March 11, 2003.
“We have a good team,” Thibodeau said. “When someone is out, the next guy has to step up. I think early on I was disappointed that I couldn’t get more out of guys that were coming in. That part, I feel, is my responsibility. But we have guys who are doing a good job, particularly Jimmy. Nazr (Mohammed’s) minutes were significant. Guys are doing their job. Hinrich ran the team great. Joakim set the tone with his blocks for rim protection. Rp and Marco in tandem were terrific at the two guard spot. We have to do it collectively.”
Speaking publicly for the first time since getting benched, Noah took full responsibility and said the issue is in the past.
“Thibs would never talk bad or say anything bad about us in the media, but that was all me,” Noah said. “He took me out. I was emotional about it. I was pissed off. I said some things I shouldn’t have said. You learn from it and move on. That’s the mindset I wanted to have. It was my fault. There are so many games. I didn’t want it lingering. I have the ultimate respect for my head coach.”
Thibodeau said Noah’s mood from the morning shootaround on proved professional.
“The way he came in and practiced this morning, I knew he was ready to play,” Thibodeau said.
Thibodeau said he sat Noah also to reward the group that brought the Bulls back from a 17-point deficit against the Grizzlies, ultimately to fall short. Asked if he felt the need to communicate this to Noah, Thibodeau shrugged.
“No, he understands,” he said. “He’s been around. The team has to come first. That’s the most important thing. Sometimes that happens. It’s not a big deal.”
Taj Gibson, one of Noah’s closest friends, agreed with Thibodeau that the issue isn’t one.
“He wasn’t edgy at all,” Gibson said of Noah’s mood. “We had a great walkthrough. We were talking, laughing like we always do, running plays. Thibs was calling out plays.
“We’re like a family. Guys put that in the back of their head. We understand we have one goal and that’s to win games and challenge for a championship. It’s a long season. Things are going to happen. Heads are going to get butted. But we all love each other. We all know it’s for the best of the team. We’re men. One thing about men is you have to let stuff go. We don’t hold grudges. We let stuff go and get ready for the next game.”
The Bulls were ready. And now comes a surging Pistons team.
“The best part about this is the amount of guys who are stepping up in other guys’ absence,” Noah said. “It feels great. Some guys might not get an opportunity to play much and want to play more, especially a guy like Jimmy staying focused. Without him, we don’t win the game. Marco, same thing. That’s the sign of a good team.”