CHICAGO -- Joakim Noah stopped himself.
The question posed to him after the Chicago Bulls' 92-76 victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday was whether he ever doubted that the Bulls could right themselves after losing Derrick Rose to a season-ending injury in November and falling to seven games under .500 in December.
Noah hesitated for a moment after being asked the question, as if contemplating whether to tell the truth. He first went with the lie, then stopped himself and delivered his actual thoughts at the time.
“No,” Noah said. “I mean, yeah, I did have doubts, but it’s not good to have doubts. I realize that.”
Noah might have felt some uncertainty about where the Bulls were headed then, but he and his teammates never stopped trying to fix their situation. Despite Rose’s absence, a number of other injuries and Luol Deng later being traded away, the Bulls kept working.
On Thursday, the Bulls (27-25) were rewarded for that ceaseless effort as they returned to two games over .500 for the first time since Nov. 21, a date when Rose and Deng were still on the floor and hopes of competing for a title were still much alive.
“It was not very positive,” Noah said of the team’s mentality after Rose went out Nov. 22. “When you lose one of your brothers to an injury like that for a second time, it’s tough, you know. I think that, if anything, all these situations, all this adversity that we’ve gone through is just going to make us better, and it’s going to be that much better when we get it.
“[We came out of that] through work. ½ It’s just hard work.”
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau thought his team came together at the right time to overcome those obstacles.
“Just the ability to endure and get through adversity,” Thibodeau said. “Nobody hung their head. We took some hits, a lot of hits early and on the road, and to more than just Derrick. To dig out of the hole, I think it shows a lot of spirit, a lot of will, determination. I think their spirit and togetherness is a great strength of our team. We have the belief we can win.”
The Bulls have benefited from hard work, togetherness and determination, but they have also begun to play better basketball. Noah, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler particularly have taken their games to another level in recent weeks.
Noah, who will be on his way to another All-Star Game, recorded his third consecutive double-double, with 14 points and 13 rebounds Thursday. He had a triple-double in Chicago's previous game, and has averaged 13.1 points, 12.3 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.6 blocks in February.
“Jo has gone to a different level,” Thibodeau said.
Gibson isn’t far behind. He has averaged 21 points over the past four games. Even returning to the bench Thursday after starting three consecutive games for Carlos Boozer, Gibson was still able to continue to have confidence and put up points. He led the Bulls with 16 on 7-of-14 shooting against the Nets.
Butler has also been consistently providing the Bulls with a presence on both ends of the floor. Against Brooklyn, he had 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting and added five rebounds, four assists, three steals and two blocks. He also limited Joe Johnson to 4-of-14 shooting and 14 points. Butler also picked up his first NBA technical foul when he and Johnson exchanged words.
“Jimmy has been playing great basketball,” Noah said. “I think the sky’s the limit for him. I think he can be even better. He's got the heart of a lion. He’s had that since Day 1. The way he works, the more he understands where he’s comfortable getting his scoring, it’s going to get ugly.”
The Bulls have also found ways to utilize point guards D.J. Augustin and Kirk Hinrich, and Boozer was solid in his first action after missing three games with a calf injury. He went for 15 points and 10 rebounds.
The Bulls couldn’t have headed into the NBA All-Star break in a much stronger fashion. They closed out Thursday’s game on a 17-4 run and secured their third consecutive victory. They now sit one game behind the Toronto Raptors for third place in the Eastern Conference.
Noah desires more, though.
“We’re happy, but we’re not satisfied,” Noah said. “We want more. We’re hungry. It was a great win tonight. I’m real proud of the team. I feel like the guys are playing real hard. I think there’s a lot more to be done, so it’s exciting.”