Just 3 days shy of his 27th birthday, Joakim Noah turned in the most impressive performance of his career, notching a triple-double to power the Bulls to a 110-91 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night. Noah tallied 13 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists, which are rare for a big man, and was helped by 5 other Bulls in double figures. The win was the Bulls 7th in a row against Milwaukee and sends the Bulls into the All-Star break on a high note comfortably atop the Central Division standings. For the Bucks, the loss is their 6th in 7 games as they seem to be falling out of the conversation for the 8th spot in the East with the emergence of Jeremy Lin and the New York Knicks. Noah’s impersonation of a human swiss army knife wasn’t the only strong showing by a Bulls player on Wednesday. Carlos Boozer led the team with 20 points on 9-for-12 shooting, and Derrick Rose had a solid night as well with 16 points and 7 assists. The entire starting lineup scored at least 13 points, and Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver and Omer Asik all had solid outings as well. The Bucks were paced by Brandon Jennings with 20 points, but Jon Leuer and Shaun Livingston were also impressive for stretches.
Although the postgame focus was on Joakim and his triple-double, the real story of the night was the way Chicago bullied the undersized Bucks on the glass. Milwaukee was playing without Andrew Bogut and Drew Gooden due to injuries, and they were outrebounded 49-29. “I thought we had good energy early in the game,” commented Bucks coach Scott Skiles. “Then they dominated the boards. At halftime our bigs had 2 rebounds in 48 minutes. You can’t do that against this team.” Unfortunately for Milwaukee, they did do that against this team, and it showed on the scoreboard. The Bulls rebounding prowess helped them to overcome a lot of careless turnovers and play from ahead the entire game. Chicago took the lead for good with just over 5 minutes remaining in the first quarter, and they outscored the Bucks in each and every quarter. Before fracturing his ankle in January, Bogut was averaging 8.3 rebounds a game and Gooden piled up 15 boards the last time the Bucks visited the United Center, and without them, the Bucks are just overmatched inside. “It’s frustrating for me and the team because we want to win,” lamented Brandon Jennings. “Rebounding has hurt us, but we’re undersized, especially with the injuries to Drew.” Joakim Noah was all too happy to take advantage of the mismatch.
The last time a Bulls’ center put up a triple-double was Artis Gilmore all the way back in 1977. There aren’t a whole lot of big guys who can pass the ball well enough to record 10 assists, but the Bucks defensive game plan paved the way for Noah’s career night. Milwaukee spent most of the first quarter trapping Derrick Rose at half court to force the ball out of his hands. He consistently found Noah at the top of the arc, and Noah would drive into the lane to draw the defense in and then find one of his teammates at the basket for an easy hoop. “They did a good job against the pick and roll and took the ball out of Derrick’s hands,” mentioned coach Thibodeau afterward. “Joakim ended up being the guy who got the ball and he made big plays. That is a unique skill set that he has.” The opposing coach was pretty much in agreement with Thibs on that one. “Jo played really well tonight,” said Skiles. “We didn’t body up on him or jump with him. You can’t do that against him because he can dribble and pass the ball so well, which is how he hurt us all night.”
It seemed pretty clear Joakim might be on his way to a special night early on. He ended the first quarter with 4 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists. From there it was pretty much elementary. Noah finished off the triple-double late in the 3rd quarter with a dunk that sent the crowd into a frenzy, and earned him a trip to the line for a 3-point play. While I wouldn’t expect Noah to put up another triple-double anytime soon, I expect him to savor this one, at least until the next game. “We’re not playing for stats,” explained Noah. “We’re just trying to get wins. Obviously this is a very humbling accomplishment but we are playing for more than that.”
The Bulls seem to have things back on track as they go into the break, with Derrick Rose back in the lineup after missing 5 games with back spasms and Rip Hamilton likely to return shortly after the All-Star game. They’ve rolled to back-to-back impressive wins in their last two games after an embarrassing loss to New Jersey last Saturday afternoon. To hear the Bulls players talk about how the team is playing, you would think they don’t even remember the New Jersey game. “We’re all playing great right now,” claimed Carlos Boozer. Boozer also mentioned that Joakim Noah has been playing like a “man-child” over the past few weeks. Hopefully the good times continue to roll coming out of the break. The Bulls are currently the 2nd best team in the Eastern Conference behind only the Miami Heat, and the margin of error is slim if the Bulls want to move up to the top seed. “We have to take it up another notch if we want to win a championship,” ceded Noah.
The Bucks, meanwhile, have gotten a little off track over the past few weeks. Thanks to slow starts by the Knicks and Celtics, the Bucks were looking like they could be a legitimate threat to grab the number 8 seed in the east, but the injury to Bogut and the breakout of Linsanity has changed all of that. There is a lot of season left, but Milwaukee needs one, or more likely several, of its young big guys to step up and fill the void left by Bogut’s injury. Jon Leuer, Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders have all shown some glimpses, but the biggest lift will likely come from Drew Gooden’s return. For the Bucks to make any sort of push at a playoff spot, they have to get healthy.
The Bulls are halfway home, but there is a lot of work left to be done in after the break. For now, most of the team has a few days off to rest and gear up for the second half, but a couple of the guys will be participating in the All-Star game. Coach Thibodeau will be coaching the East All-Stars while D-Rose and Luol Deng will play in the game down in Orlando. Hopefully Thibs will tone down the intensity for the All-Star game and actually enjoy the trip a little bit, because when the Bulls come back Tuesday against the Hornets, it will be all business. The schedule isn’t quite as compressed in the second half, but the games will still come fast and furious, and against quality opponents. 19 of the remaining 31 games the Bulls will play are against teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. The Bulls will come out focused for the second half; you can bet Tom Thibodeau will make sure of that. “From the start of camp, our goal has been to strive for improvement every day,” said the coach. “We want to be playing our best basketball at the end.” If they accomplish that goal, everything else should fall into place and the Bulls should enjoy a nice long postseason.