Beginning of the 3rd quarter, Game 5 in Chicago, Bulls with their season on the line down three games to one to the Heat, leading by seven points at halftime. …
On the Heat’s first possession of the second half, as Dwyane Wade stunted toward the lane, Bulls center Joakim Noah, as he has so often this series, sagged deep into the lane to close the gap, this time leaving Chris Bosh all alone at the right elbow. Wade flipped a pass to Bosh, who was already bending his legs to shoot as Noah planted, lunged
… and went sailing past Bosh as Bosh drove to the hoop for an easy layup.
“There wasn’t anything Boozer (Carlos, the nearest available help defender) could do about that,” Marv Albert noted in his play-by-play. And there wasn’t. Three Heat possession later and Bosh had another bucket on a midrange jumper and Noah had committed a foul, and the Heat had cut the lead to five.
Coming into the game, Bosh was averaging 24.5 points per game in the series, including a 30 point Game 1 and a 34 point Game 3. No, despite Noah’s hyper-activity and the lunging-for-the-ball tip and block efforts, the Bulls center had blocked just six shots through four games (his season average) and had a miserable time guarding Bosh, who found Noah an all-too-willing sucker for the pump fake, and all-too eager to leave him to help out on the driving Heat, even when help wasn’t needed.
It wasn’t anything resembling the play of a 2nd-team All-Defensive forward-center, the honor bestowed upon Noah by the NBA coaches in 2011. To compound matters, Noah had shot 29 percent from the field entering Game 4.
Yet few — if any — Heat-Bulls observers (Noah’s biggest fan, Charles Barkley, included) seem to have noticed. “On the court and off, Noah not your typical NBA player,” gushed the Chicago Tribune headline above a long feature on Noah before Game 5.
Yeah, the Tribune story set out to tell the human interest story behind a basketball player fined for a vulgar, homophobic slur toward a fan in Miami. But this story aims to talk about Noah the basketball player, the guy who is not making plays on the court, not with the regularity that his fans seem to think he is.
What gives? Were these games against the Heat an aberration, a tough matchup (Bosh, Wade and Lebron) that belied Noah’s All-Defensive status?
Hardly. Noah’s defense in the Heat series was exemplary of how the Bulls center plays defense, and has played it that way since he entered the league in 2007, the season Scott Skiles was let go by the Bulls. Noah rushes to help, lunges after shot attempts, goes for ball fakes, and, as a result of this activity, tends to leave his man wide open or in weak side rebound position. Generally, he tries to be everywhere at once on the defensive end.
While his style surely reflects Noah’s confidence in his athleticism and relative inexperience, it’s also impossible, often foolish, and is a dangerous way to play Chris Bosh — hey ! It’s not good defense.
We actually have statistical evidence of Noah’s folly. Using a newly developed measure of defensive play, ezPM, when counterpart scoring is taken into account (that seems obvious) Noah’s marginal score for individual defense takes one of the biggest dives in the league.
EZPM is a rather basic yet complex and comprehensive metric extended from box score stats developed by Warriors-centric blogger EvanZ at “The City.” For a full explanation on the “ezPM” metric, CLICK HERE. For the opponent scoring (Defense) calculations and rankings, CLICK HERE.
For the record, the ezPM results verify what the eye is telling the NBA fan: Noah is often playing active but poor defense, and the man he’s guarding reaps the benefits. Despite making about 3.0 defensive plays per game (1.5 blocks, 1.0 steals and taking charges) and playing on the NBA’s top-rated defense, Noah finished well behind the top rated big men in the league (see below), and out of the top 25. The Bulls may have clamped down on opponents as they so often did this season, but their center was too often losing track of his man.
In 2010-11, Joakim Noah was not 2nd-team All-NBA Defensive material. In the end, his poor defense on Bosh — and the absence of any offensive game to speak of — may have cost his team a trip to the NBA Finals.
As the Bulls-Heat series played to its conclusion in the 4th quarter of Game 5, backup center Kurt Thomas was the big man on the floor for the Bulls, helping to build a 12-point lead that Dwyane Wade and Lebron James extinguished down the stretch. Noah remained on the bench the entire 4th quarter.
I wonder if anybody in Chicago (or Charles Barkley) noticed.
More later on ezPM, which was fully implemented for the first time this season. Suffice it to say that there were no surprises about the NBA’s top-ranked big men. Noah posted a 1.702 defensive mark — above the margins but behind the Bucks backups, Larry Sanders (2.792) and Jon Brockman (1.767, and even his own backup, Omer Asik (2.214). For now here’s a snapshot of the ezPM defensive scores Top 5: