CHICAGO — The Chicago Bulls are 3-0 since trading veteran forward Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday, and nobody has been more important to their recent success than center Joakim Noah.
In the Bulls' 103-97 Saturday win over the Charlotte Bobcats, Noah scored 19 points and had 14 rebounds and four assists. But the loss of Deng has been difficult for Noah, another bit of adversity for a team that has had more than its fair share over the last few years.
At his locker on Saturday night, Noah finally broke his silence after refusing to speak to reporters for nearly a week after the Deng trade. Even though he's had a few days to digest it and says he's focused strictly on the future, his eyes welled up as he talked about his longtime teammate.
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"The trade definitely hurt," Noah said. "I know a lot of people say this is a business and all that, but this game is more than a business to me. I put everything I've got into this. I feel like Lu was the same way, so it was hard for me to digest. But that's just my perspective. Everybody has a different job. I'm not mad at anybody. I'm not mad at the organization or anything like that. It's just that my brother isn't here, so I just need time to digest that."
The absence of Deng, compounded with superstar point guard Derrick Rose's season-ending knee surgery, has led many observers to ask if the Bulls would be better served playing for a high lottery pick in this summer's heavily-hyped draft class. Noah's view couldn't be further from that.
"There's no tanking. There's none of that," he said. "We're going to go out and give it 150%. When (our jerseys) say 'Chicago Bulls,' I want people to be proud of that. Whether we have four guys out, no matter who's hurt, we're going to give 150% win or lose. I know people in this city are proud of that."
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For Noah, who has spent his entire seven-year career with the Bulls, the city of Chicago and the Bulls' fan base hold a special place. He knows they won't accept losing games on purpose, even with the long-term future in mind.
"We just want to represent," he said. "Even when I come to the game, I see the guy on the streets selling the newspaper. It's cold outside, but when he sees me drive by, he's excited. 'Alright, let's go Bulls! Get it done tonight!' I feel like I play for that guy.
"To me, that's what the city represents. There's a lot of hardship. There's a lot of adversity. So I feel like, when I play basketball, I want people to be proud of their team."
With the Bulls having won eight of their last 10 games, Noah believes there is still enough talent to make yet another shorthanded playoff run.
"To me, it's more than just winning and losing games," Noah said. "I'm just proud to be out there fighting. We've just got to keep growing. I think we can still get better, we can keep improving. We'll see what happens. If we go into the playoffs with a high seed, I think these are realistic goals for us. And once the playoffs hit, we can't take none of these experiences for granted."
Noah has been on a tear since the Deng trade — in the three games since the move was made, he has averaged 13.6 points, 13.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists.
"I just think that all this adversity makes me stronger," he said. "It makes me stronger as a person and as a player. I've never been so hungry. We've been through a lot. Derrick's injury was really hard. Lu not being here is really hard.
"There's no tank in this team. We're going to go out and make this city proud."
Follow national NBA reporter and blogger Sean Highkin on Twitter @highkin.
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