Joakim Noah still has minutes limit

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau explained why he didn't use center Joakim Noah more during the final few minutes of a 109-100 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.

"I ran out of minutes with him," Thibodeau said. "But I thought Jo played a very good game for us."

Noah remains on a playing limit of 32 minutes per game, Thibodeau said.

The revelation that Noah was still on a minutes restriction came as a mild surprise given that he appeared to be playing his best basketball of the season in recent weeks. The initial minutes restriction was an edict given to Thibodeau by the Bulls' front office over the summer.

With Noah coming off left knee surgery in May, the front office did not want its All-Star center playing more than 30 to 32 minutes a night to start the season. The restrictions also covered Derrick Rose, who was coming off a torn meniscus last year.

In recent weeks, though, Noah appeared to play his way back into shape and was starting to look like the difference-maker that he became in the past two seasons without Rose. Noah looked more comfortable on the floor, and the knee that gave him so much trouble didn't appear to be affecting him as much.

More importantly, he was playing more and contributing on both ends of the floor. Noah played a season-high 42 minutes in a Jan. 29 double-overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. He played 40 minutes in an overtime win over the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 27.

While it's unclear exactly when the re-enforcement of the minutes limit occurred, the numbers show that it happened at some point in the past two weeks. Noah played 35 minutes in a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on March 1 and 33 minutes in a March 3 win over the Washington Wizards. He has not played more than 31 minutes in a game since, including the 31 minutes he played in Sunday's loss.

Noah missed Wednesday's game against the Philadelphia 76ers because of left knee soreness and was a nonfactor, scoring just one point, in 24 minutes in Friday's loss to the Charlotte Hornets.

He declined comment after Sunday's loss, but it's clear the emotional center is frustrated with the situation, especially as the Bulls continue to play without Rose (knee), Jimmy Butler (elbow) and Taj Gibson (ankle).

"You got to keep the game together," Thibodeau said, while describing how tough it is to manage the minutes situation. "Sometimes a group's on a run, sometimes you got to look at the matchup, then you take your shot at the end. You just got to use it the best way you can."

This isn't the first time Thibodeau has been vocal about his frustration regarding Noah's -- and Rose's -- minutes restriction. Thibodeau has referenced the restrictions several times during the season, dating back to training camp. With just 14 regular-season games remaining, Thibodeau said he has been given no indication by management that Noah's minutes restriction will be lifted.

Fellow Bulls big man Pau Gasol said he was unaware of the restrictions on Noah.

Noah came into Sunday's game struggling to make a difference late in games in recent weeks. Since the first game after the All-Star break Feb. 20, Noah has played just 29 of a possible 60 minutes in the last five minutes of games through Friday, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The situation is something to watch down the stretch of what has been a tumultuous season for the Bulls. Not only will it be interesting to see how Noah responds if the minutes limit stays intact, but it will also be interesting to watch how Thibodeau and the Bulls' front office, specifically general manager Gar Forman and executive vice president John Paxson, handle the ramifications of the decision as this team heads into the playoffs.

In the short term, the Bulls have to hope that Noah can find a way to make the most out of his minutes, the way he did at times Sunday. Noah was 6-for-7 from the field for 15 points, seven assists and three rebounds.

"It was one of his better games," Thibodeau said. "He didn't rebound particularly well, but I thought offensively he was very good. I thought his passing and his finishing -- he rolled hard on the pick-and-roll and I thought was very effective for him."