MILWAUKEE -- Joakim Noah may not be back to where he wants to be, but if you watched the Chicago Bulls’ 83-75 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night, you wouldn't have noticed much difference between the pre-thumb-surgery Noah and the post-op one.
The emotional Bulls center pulled down 17 rebounds and looked like his old self, jumping up and down on the floor while spewing the type of energy, determination and choice language that Bulls fans know and love.
"I thought Jo was really good tonight," Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. "I thought his defense was terrific. Individual defense, team defense, rebounding effort. Same things to start the third; he got tired a little bit quicker, but I thought his wind came back really well in the fourth."
That was the key for Noah on this night. He found the second wind that had eluded him since returning Wednesday night in Toronto after missing 30 games.
"I feel like the more I'm out there on the court, the better my wind's going to be," Noah said. "My timing is still off. I feel like I can still get better, there are still things I can do a lot better, and I think I'm not a player who's satisfied. So I'm just going to keep working, keep grinding, because I feel like we can do some good things on this team."
Noah's re-integration into the Bulls offensive and defensive schemes is an ongoing process, but his presence on the floor and his ability to clear up the boards is something which his teammates have been missing. They love Kurt Thomas and Omer Asik, but they know that Noah has the ability to make them even stronger as a whole.
Led by Noah, the Bulls outrebound the Bucks 49-37 and outscored them 28-15 in second-chance points.
"I think they're backbreakers in some ways," Thibodeau said of the second-chance points. Milwaukee is a great defensive team, but I think the extra possession, the more you do that, now they've got to commit to another 24 seconds of defense and I think that can wear on a team."
Deng steps up again: Speaking of wearing on a team, Luol Deng did it again Saturday night, scoring a team-high 19 points and playing with the same type of steadiness that he has played with all year.
"Lu's been huge," Noah said. "But Lu's been huge all year. He's been real consistent for us. He's playing very, very confident basketball. He's not somebody who gets too excited, never too high, never too low, just consistent. And he's been playing very aggressive as well, so we need that from him."
Noah, like so many others, believes Deng has found his groove under Thibodeau.
"I think he's playing under control more," Noah said. "He's letting his offense come to him; he's not rushing shots. And he's playing like a real confident player right now. Sometimes, I felt like in the past, some of Lu's shots were rushed. I feel like he's playing at a really high level. It's just smooth. He's letting the game come to him."
Bulls D steps up: For the second straight game, the Bulls' defense ramped up its pressure in the second half and took over the game. Rose has an interesting theory as to why that has happened recently.
"[Thibodeau] comes in talking to us," Rose said. "Letting us know that the first half, I think the second quarter was terrible, sloppy. He always tells us what we have to do and we came out and tried to push the ball, rebound the ball, and take good shots."
As usual, despite the success, Thibodeau sees a lot of room for improvement.
"You had to work this game," he said. "You want to be consistent as possible for 48 minutes. We didn't like the first quarter defensively. We thought we gave them too much. They got 25 in the first quarter. And then we seemed to be more locked in, more disciplined. And as the game wore on, we were helping each other well, and [I] thought we were getting back, getting our defense set, and that's what we're striving for, the improvement. We know we're still not a 48-minute team and we know that's where we have to try to get there."
Deng believes the defensive difference, especially since Wednesday night's embarrassing loss in Toronto, has been simple.
"Our energy," he said. "I thought we were flat in Toronto. Our energy was great the second half in the Miami game [and] tonight again. We came out in the third quarter and outplayed them."