The Man In The Middle Returns

TORONTO – It has been 30 games since Chicago Bulls Center Joakim Noah suited up and hit the court but the wait is over. The Bulls announced that Noah will be in the starting lineup tonight as the Bulls return to action at the Air United Centre in Canada.

“Very excited, very excited,” Noah said when asked about his feelings on finally playing again. “It’s been awhile. I’m just excited to play basketball again.”

The Bulls managed to scrap together a string of replacements while
Noah was absent, from Taj Gibson to Kurt Thomas and even Omer Asik. It was devastating news to hear when it was announced about eight weeks ago that Noah would be out. But Chicago surprised everyone (and frustrated a few teams from Boston, Miami and Orlando) by not imploding without Noah and instead dominating. The Bulls were 16-8 with Noah and went a stunning 22-6 without him. The Bulls did the opposite of what Boston and Miami were hoping for and are instead now within deadly striking distance of the Eastern Conference titans.

“I think it’s more than just making the playoffs now,” Noah said. “There’s definitely a bigger picture, and we’re excited to see where we stand.”

Defense Has It’s Muscle Back

Noah will give the Bulls a welcomed spark to a defense that has already been playing pretty good. He will replace Kurt Thomas, who as Noah’s replacement, averaged 4.7 points and 5.9 rebounds. The defense wasn’t terrible without join it just wasn’t the same. Chicago felt his missing numbers in games where had Noah been there, perhaps the outcome would have been different. But although Noah was averaging 14 points and 11.7 rebounds at the time of his injury, there is the inevitable question of how well will he transition back to the court?

Among teammates such as Derrick Rose, there is some cautious doubt.

“It’s always hard working somebody into the lineup, especially when they’ve been out for a long time,” Rose said. “You get used to not playing with them. So we’ll have to see.”

Thibodeau Has Caution, Hope
Tom Thibodeau knows how hard it is to transition a player back, but he is ready to adjust.

“I don’t know how he’s going to respond out there. We’ll see how he is,” Thibodeau said. “And, obviously, we’re going to try and get him up to starter’s minutes as quickly as possible.”

This isn’t Thidbodeau’s first trip to the rehab rodeo either. Carlos Boozer missed the first month of the season and didn’t have the luxury Noah had of already had games under his belt.

“I think when they start paying it’ll come around quickly”

Thibodeau wasn’t just all transition talk, he also seemed excited (if that’s even actually humanly possible for Thibodeau) about Noah’s return.

“I think most of [Noah's] strengths are team strengths: His team defense, his energy, his rebounding, his shot-blocking, his passing,” Thibodeau said. “I think when you add those things, it helps your team in a lot of ways. And any time you can add a quality passer I think that it makes it that much harder to be guarded.

“I think he’ll help us in all areas. I think the fact that it gives you another quality big, you can be even more aggressive with your defense … I thought the big thing was at the start of the year we played with a quicker tempo, and a lot of that is his ability to rebound the ball and get out and run and beat teams down the floor.”

Happy To Be Back

Noah may have been effectively (and luckily) replaced in his absence but he will be welcomed back with open arms. The Bulls had few tests in his absence, beating both the Heat and Celtics, but await a second matchup with Miami on Thursday.

This time with Noah.

This time with all 3 of Miam’s stars.

Chicago also has two games with Miami and one with Orlando in their next ten games. But for now, Noah is just happy to be back and ready to step foot on the basketball court once again.

“I think I always play with passion and fire,” he said. “I’m ready. It’s been a lot of waiting. I’ve been trying to be as patient as possible, but I’m really happy that it’s finally here.”

Chicago battles the Raptors tonight at 7.

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