CHICAGO -- The two guys who have trophy space cleared on the mantel, Tom Thibodeau and Derrick Rose, had reason to grouse after another win Tuesday night.
A close win, 97-94, over the Phoenix Suns isn't like almost losing to the Washington Generals, or even the Wizards, but to those guys, this win had all the warning signs, most notably an underwhelming fourth quarter and a penchant for turnovers.
"A win is a win, especially in this league," Rose said. "But right now we're not moving in the right direction. If we're trying to do something special, coming out and playing like this at home, we can't do that."
Thibodeau is well-known for finding the rain cloud surrounding a silver lining, but watching his 57-20 team get outscored 54-44, and outrebounded 21-13, by the sub-.500 Suns in the second half gave him a real reason for pause.
"The win is important," he said. "You can never lose sight of that. But you also have to think about where you're going as a team, and right now, we've got to change things. We've got to do things a lot better. We have Boston coming in and they looked like they played well tonight, so we're going to have to play a lot better against them."
In truth, the Bulls didn't play that bad in the second half, shooting 52.8 percent led by Luol Deng's 10 and Derrick Rose's 12.
Phoenix, which shot 45.5 percent, nearly stole it behind the still-living Vince Carter, who scored 19 points to spark Phoenix. In the fourth, he took over, shooting a classic 5-for-14, including a potential game-tying airball in the latter stages.
The big question right now isn't whether or not the Bulls can win the East, because they're firmly in the driver's seat with a three-game lead over Boston, which visits Chicago on Thursday, and Miami.
It's how effective can Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer be when playing together. It's a question that makes Boozer grimace and Noah roll his eyes, but it's one still worth asking after we got to see them play together for only the 24th time this season.
The pair combined for 24 points and 13 rebounds, with neither having a complete game. Still, the Bulls are now 19-5 when they start a game together, a good number that also shows how much time they've missed. (And another reason Rose should win MVP and Thibodeau coach of the year.) Noah had an effective scoring night (12 points on 6-for-7 shooting) and a poor rebounding performance, four in 28 minutes, 28 seconds, partially because of his defensive assignment. He put in a full game though, with four assists and four steals, but his timing was visibly off.
"Offensively, pretty good," Thibodeau said. "Defensively, you could see it was not there. He is still hurting a little bit. Overall, he was good. I am concerned he is not able to get in rhythm, because he has missed so much time. He has missed almost half a season. ... To be the team we want to be, he has to rebound big."
Boozer played nearly 35 minutes and had a mundane shooting performance, going 5-for-13, and four turnovers, but he had nine rebounds and seven assists, several of them to Noah as they showed some offensive chemistry.
Don't get him started on the two having problems playing together.
"You guys are so cute," Boozer said. "We're not worried about it like you guys are. We're just going to keep playing and do what we do."
With both players on the floor, the Bulls outscored the Suns 55-50. Boozer shot 4-for-12 while Noah scored 10 points. Boozer assisted on three Noah baskets and Noah returned the favor once.
The sample size from one game isn't something to dwell on, though. It's all about getting that experience. When you put together the pair's mutual season, you can see the reason they're not always clicking.
Boozer and Noah started together in games 16-24, after Boozer got back from his bag-tripping incident/hand injury, but then Noah missed 30 games after his hand surgery, so they didn't start together again until games 55-63 before yet another six-game hiatus. They got five more games together, before Noah missed three with a sprained ankle.
"I know that's something been mentioned around here with Carlos and Jo," said Bulls assistant coach Ed Pinckney, who works with all the big men. "They just haven't logged a lot of games together. They probably haven't created as much chemistry as people might think, but they're comfortable together. I've seen them in practice, they have a synergy. It's probably not as developed as some people would like to have it."
"Offensively they're fine," Pinckney said of Boozer and Noah. "In terms of rotations defensively, ours change from game to game. So there's got to be a little bit more of an agreement on how they're going to play certain guys from a perimeter to post-up standpoint. I laugh on the offensive end. If you ask them it has nothing to do with the offensive end of the floor. They're comfortable there."
Noah and Boozer have both shut down any talk of a learning curve, but it's obvious to everyone. The Bulls are a very good team, but if they want to be "special," as Rose likes to say, the clock is ticking.
"There is no time for excuses," Noah said at practice Monday. "At the end of the day, obviously we haven't played a lot together this year, but we're still the No. 1 team in the East. At the end of the day, I think it's going to be just fine."
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.