There are plenty of reasons to love Joakim Noah, and the masterful performance he put on against the Knicks yesterday showed off a lot of them. The Bulls came away with a 109-90 victory, and they were paced throughout the blowout by Noah, who finished the game with 13 points, 12 rebounds, and 14 assists. The first two figures are standard for Noah, but it was those 14 dimes, and all the different ways in which he got them, that made yesterday's game a marvel.
According to ESPN, no center since 1979 has finished a game with 14 or more assists, and Vlade Divac is the only one to get to 13 in the last 25 years. But it was just a matter of time before Noah hit the mark; yesterday was the fourth time this season that he has dished at least 11 assists in a game. (For comparison's sake, Suns starting point guard Goran Dragic has had 11 or more three times this year.) The Bulls spent most of the game running their offense through Noah in the high post, and the Knicks couldn't do a thing to stop him.
What was most impressive about Noah's dismantling of the Knicks' defense—and, granted, it was the Knicks' defense—was how many different angles it came from. His first four assists of the game came on the exact same play: a dribble hand-off at the right elbow, followed by a screen to spring one of the Bulls shooters for an open jumper. Because the Knicks are terrible and poorly coached, it took them until the second quarter to catch on to that particular set and start denying Noah the hand-off. But Noah, like a chess player countering his opponents' counters, just started throwing backdoor passes into the paint. At the 2:33 mark of the video above, you can see Iman Shumpert deny Tony Snell the ball on that same dribble hand-off action at the right elbow. Instead of accepting the broken play, though, Noah holds onto the ball and just waits for Snell to cut, at which point he lofts a perfect touch pass into the paint that leads to an easy layup.
Eventually, the Knicks switched to a zone defense, a point at which a more one-dimensional passing big man may have faltered. Noah's ability to run an offense isn't limited to one particular set play, though. He spent the rest of the game probing the spaces in the zone and zipping perfectly timed passes to his cutting teammates. Noah's far from being the best ball-handling big man in the league, but he's a master at using his dribble to get the defender in front of him moving backward just enough to allow for a clean look into the lane, at which point he can snap off a perfect bounce pass. The assist he gets at the 4:40 mark in the video above belongs in the National Museum of Passing Big Men.
A final note: it's incredible to see how comfortable Noah has become acting as his team's primary offensive facilitator. See the baseball-style pass he flings at Mike Dunleavy at the 4:26 mark above. That's a ballsy pass, the kind we're used to seeing LeBron throw when he's in Giant Oscar Robertson mode. Noah throws it perfectly, without a moment's hesitation. This is what it looks like when a guy who came into the league as nothing more than a defender/screener evolves into something greater. We all want Derrick Rose to come back as soon as possible, but damn if it isn't fun to watch Noah play point-center while he's gone.