SAN FRANCISCO -- Joakim Noah looked upset. Not fly-off-the-handle, expletive-laced gesturing at officials upset but bothered nonetheless.
As he and Taj Gibson walked to the Bulls' bench for a third-quarter timeout during Tuesday night's unlikely victory over the Suns, Noah directed some pointed words at Gibson. An incredulous-looking Gibson responded in kind, denying his role as the culprit in a blown defensive coverage.
The timeout ended. Gibson and Noah took the court, still scowling. On the next defensive possession, Gibson defended his man ably and Noah altered the shot, producing a miss.
Welcome to Bulls' basketball, where perseverance typically trumps personal agendas. It's why Carlos Boozer's words over his lack of fourth-quarter minutes can be absorbed. It's also why Noah can get into Gibson's face and it's no big deal.
"Guys have love for one another in this locker room," Gibson said. "Everybody is playing for another. And guys take criticism good. We talk to each other and guys just respond. That's one of the bright spots to this team."
This is more exception than rule in professional sports. Just ask Mike Dunleavy, who has joked he leads the league in playing for dysfunctional teams. On his fourth team in his 12th season, Dunleavy has appreciated plying his trade in an environment as serious as this one.
"You have a lot of sensitive guys in this league," Dunleavy said. "You have to have the right group of guys to do (what we do). We have veterans here who have been through a lot and that sets the tone.
"There's just a common respect among everybody in which guys get on each other and nobody takes it personally. Just kind of the next play, 'OK, I hear you.' Everybody checks their ego at the door. It's a good group to be a part of."
"It's the character," he said. "It's all about how you deal with adversity. We've shown that when things get hot, some people quit or get frustrated with one another. The more the adversity, the more we show that we take our games to another level."
Noah, of course, often serves as the emotional barometer. What makes that work is that the two-time All-Star doesn't place himself above criticism either, as long as it's directed toward improvement.
"He's a passionate guy," Dunleavy said. "He can say stuff to us. We can say stuff back to him. It's all good."
Parades aren't thrown for .500 teams. Talent trumps grittiness when the playoffs arrive. Still, there is something to be said for a franchise that has lost its best player for consecutive seasons and continues to defy odds.
Nobody knows where this magic carpet ride of a season will end. Last season's version ended swiftly at the hands of the Heat, whose talent often obscures their tenacity. One thing is certain: When the Bulls hit more potholes -- and they're coming -- they will navigate them in tough-minded fashion.
"We've had a lot of moments where our backs were against the wall and we responded," Dunleavy said. "It's certainly the grittiest team I've been a part of. And we'll continue to be that way the rest of the season."
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