Noah, Bulls hope to slow Asik's rise

Omer Asik helped the Rockets beat his former team in their first meeting on Nov. 21. Thomas Campbell/US Presswire

DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Joakim Noah misses playing with Omer Asik, but another favorite pastime makes the Chicago Bulls center even more wistful for the days the Turkish big man was still around.

"I don't talk to him that much, but sometimes I see the backgammon set that's still on the plane and we used to play backgammon together a lot," Noah said after Monday's practice. "Nobody else knows how to play backgammon so sometimes I get bored on the plane, I think about Omer. It's kind of corny but it's true."

Noah won't get a chance to play backgammon with Asik on Christmas night when the Bulls take on the Houston Rockets, but he will get a chance for some payback on the floor after Asik and the Rockets knocked off the Bulls last month.

"It's always challenging," Noah said of facing Asik and the Rockets. "He's a big boy and somebody who rebounds the ball very well, very athletic, very high IQ. He's going to run into a lot of high pick and rolls. We know that he can affect the game in a lot of ways so we got to have the right mindset. They have some good stretch fours too, so we have to be ready for a lot of things."

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau echoed those sentiments. He knows the Rockets are playing better basketball of late.

"They're playing great," Thibodeau said. "They score the ball, No. 1 in the league in scoring. No. 1 in fast-break points. They're playing with a lot of confidence right now. You let your guard down for a second, they can put big points up on you."

Obviously, Asik will be a main focus in his return to the United Center. He comes into the game averaging 11 points and 11 rebounds a game -- numbers that really don't surprise Thibodeau or any of his players. They always knew Asik was capable of that kind of production, the organization just didn't want to match the contract the Rockets offered him over the summer at three years, $25 million.

"We always felt that we knew he had a lot of ability," Thibodeau said. "Whenever he played extended minutes here he played very well. So I think the opportunity for him to play a lot more has really helped him more than anything else. Omer also has the type of characteristics where he's going to get better every year because he's an extremely hard worker, he's very bright, and those type of guys always improve.

"He's a team guy. I thought he did a lot of things here for us offensively that never were really recognized. I think his teammates recognized how valuable he was, and certainly the coaches, but he's a great screener, a great offensive rebounder, a great passer. He's going to finish strong around the basket. I think he's making more of his free throws now, but even his free throws, when he shot his free throws in practice he shot very well. We always felt it was just a matter of time. But he's a terrific player."

Asik’s work ethic was not lost on Noah.

"I love the fact that he was a hard worker," Noah said. "He was always in here working hard. Just a great attitude, positive guy, somebody who sacrificed a lot for the team. He obviously wanted to play more, a bigger role, that's probably one of the reasons why he left. But he was one of the reasons why we were so successful."

Noah knows Asik will find success. He just hopes that it comes after Tuesday night.

"It was obvious to me that he was going to play well, just with more time," Noah said. "We felt like he wasn't getting a lot of playing time when he was here, but when he was on the court he was definitely somebody who affected the game. I wish him nothing but the best, but hopefully he plays (terrible Tuesday.)"