It's time for Boozer to earn his keep

CHICAGO -- It is hard to quibble with much of anything the Bulls have done this season, particularly after still another game like Saturday night's against Toronto, when any deficiencies they might have shown, offensively or defensively, were overcome by the relentless spirit of Derrick Rose.

Rose scored 36 points with 10 assists and 3 blocked shots in a 113-106 victory that moved the Bulls to within a game of San Antonio for the best record in the league. We'll worry later about Rose's endurance in a postseason in which he is sure to be pounded consistently and move right along to the matter of Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah.

With or without the two, together in the same lineup or individually, the team obviously has figured out more ways to win than not.

The Bulls are 18-5 (.783) when the two have played together and 37-15 (.712) when either one has missed a game. Between them, they have missed 56 games in all to injury. But boil it down to how many times the pair have both been healthy in the same lineup and it's maybe a dozen. Maybe.

So how to interpret the fact that Boozer seems to operate more comfortably and effectively without Noah, who missed his third straight game Saturday night with a swollen ankle?

With just six games remaining in the regular season, will they mesh well enough to perform to take full advantage in the playoffs?

"No concern at all," was Boozer's answer to that question. "Not at all. I think we'll be great together."

Before Saturday night's game, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau dismissed the idea that Boozer's game suffers when he's on the floor with Noah.

"I think that's a myth," he said. "When you study the statistics, it's very similar. There's not much of a difference. They're different players and they complement each other differently, but I think the big part for us is the versatility of all of our big guys. I think they all complement each other well, and you can play them together, and we have when guys have been out, hurt, foul trouble.

"There are times we've had Omer [Asik] and Joakim out together, and it's made our defense a lot better, made us get into the open floor and get easy baskets. So I don't think that's an issue. I think Jo and Carlos complement each other very well, also."

Boozer finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds in 28 minutes against the Raptors on Saturday, for an average of 22.1 points on 54 percent shooting and 10.6 rebounds in the past three games without Noah.

That's only about four more points and one more rebound per game than Boozer's season average, but if anyone needs to adjust, it's still Boozer.

The other day, Rose said Boozer is "way more aggressive" without Noah on the floor.

Before Saturday's game, Rose agreed that on-court chemistry doesn't happen with a snap of the fingers.

"It's going to take time, especially for Jo," he said. "He hasn't gotten back in rhythm yet."

When healthy, Noah will adjust. He'll do what he always does. He'll go strong to the basket; he'll rebound on both ends. He'll help the team win, and he won't care how he does it. Boozer is the one who is awkward, which is not exactly what the Bulls were looking for when they signed him to a five-year, $75 million contract this past summer.

It is no secret that Boozer is not a defensive force, nor could the Bulls have expected that, given his track record. But they're still not getting as much out of the eight-year veteran as they should be getting.

Besides the obvious, that he is not as dependable as anyone would like, where is the post-up game that he has yet to demonstrate and that would be valuable in the postseason?

There are times, too many times, when Taj Gibson, who had 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting and 9 rebounds in 30 minutes against the Raptors, gives the Bulls a more accurate shooter, someone quicker to the ball and to the rim, a more active player.

It's a different game in the playoffs. Much more physical. Experience counts for more. The Bulls will need Boozer to jell with Noah. But more than that, they will need Boozer to be the player they are paying him to be.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.