Bulls' big men rise to challenge

Bulls' big men rise to challenge

After Wednesday night's 95-90 loss to the Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau admitted he was disturbed by the team's effort, or lack thereof, directly pointing to the visitors' 44-41 edge on the glass. Big men Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer combined for 21 points on 10-for-23 shooting and were outplayed, at times outworked, by the Pacers' front line, which featured Roy Hibbert's 20-point, eight-rebound performance.

However, the Bulls' front-court duo responded in Friday night's 107-100 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, the final contest of Chicago's four-game homestand at the United Center. Noah had his most active outing of the season, grabbing a season-high 16 rebounds (eight offensive) to go along with 15 points, four assists, three steals and three blocks, while Boozer put up 20 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks. The Bulls outrebounded the Bucks 50-43 and piled up a whopping 56 points in the paint.

The much-maligned tandem has played much better recently, following a rough start to the season that led Bulls fans to again bring up the prospect of either trading one or shuffling the lineup. Naturally, Thibodeau stuck to his rotation and allowed Noah and Boozer to find their way together, because the Bulls have, as it's been well-documented, a lot of money invested in them and the team knows that the pair of big men have to be at their best once the playoffs roll around.

"I thought Joakim [played with] high energy," Thibodeau told reporters after Friday's game. "He's been going in an upward trend for six or seven games now. His energy's really good. I think his conditioning and timing are coming around. He's putting a lot of extra work in. And the thing with Joakim is: When he practices well, he plays well."

Indeed, Thibodeau on Wednesday explained his team's lack of preparation was a troubling sign. Against the depleted Bucks, Noah brought the type of energy Bulls fans want to see on a nightly basis. He was energized from the first second of the game and appeared to communicate much more defensively.

As for the 6-foot-11 center's upward trend, he is clearly in one, averaging 12.4 points and 12.2 rebounds while shooting 59 percent from the field in his last five games.

"I have to go try to attack," Noah said. "Coach always tells me, 'The more you go in there, the more you get [the ball].' So I just try to go in there every time.

"I feel a lot better on the court. I've just got to keep it up."

For Boozer, it was a solid bounce-back game, as he put up just 11 points on 5-for-14 shooting and was replaced by Brian Scalabrine late in Wednesday's loss. The 6-foot-9 power forward has scored in double figures in all but three games this season and is the only Bulls starter to play in all 21 games, an impressive feat for a man who has had an "injury-prone" tag during his 10-year career. Of course, the Bulls hope that he can remain healthy enough to shoulder some of the offensive burden from Derrick Rose in the postseason.

Boozer's backup, Taj Gibson, returned from a three-game absence on Friday and posted two points, four rebounds and two blocks. He missed 3-of-4 shots but the Bulls were encouraged with the way he played through a left ankle sprain.

"Very good, very good," Thibodeau said of Gibson's return. "First time back, he moved his feet well. I thought his energy was good."

Watson finds rhythm: As Rose missed four games in a row last week before returning on Monday against the New Jersey Jets, C.J. Watson admirably filled the void at point guard, with help from John Lucas III and Mike James, and averaged almost 17 points and five assists, including 23 points in a 118-97 win over the Phoenix Suns.

In Rose's first two games back, Watson scored eight points and missed 8-of-10 shots, including all six attempts on Wednesday.

But the 6-foot-2 backup poured in 13 points on three three-pointers Friday. Watson, who played just under 19 minutes against the Bucks, has shown he can be a starting-caliber lead guard in the NBA, but he understands that opportunity will not come in Chicago unless Rose is sidelined.

Still, he's an important component of the Bulls' "Bench Mob" and the squad will be looking for more nights like Friday out of him.

"C.J. came off [the bench], gave us a big lift," Thibodeau said.

Watson also provides the Bulls with versatility, being able to play both guard positions. He was the off guard for much of the fourth quarter against an Andrew Bogut-less Bucks team as Rose racked up a season-high 34 points and controlled the ball.

"They were small, so we sort of downsized ourselves," said Thibodeau, whose three minute, five second press conference was, by my count, the shortest of the season.

Road ready: With a 9-1 home record, 17-4 overall, the Bulls will embark on a season-long, nine-game road trip on Sunday afternoon against the Miami Heat. Their stops also include Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Milwaukee, New Jersey, New Orleans, Charlotte and Boston.

The Bulls do not play again at home until Feb. 14, Valentine's Day. While they don't love the upcoming slate of games, players are ready to gel together and stay focused, starting with Sunday afternoon's highly anticipated contest in Miami.

"I think we're a team, we can handle the road," Noah told the assembled media. "Obviously, we like playing at home. But everybody has to play a certain amount of games on the road so let's go out there and handle our business."

And if you thought the Bulls are already looking to ahead, think again.

"Just thinking about Miami. Miami, that's it," Thibodeau said. "That's the schedule. You just think about the next one, don't look beyond that. To win on the road is tough, so we've got to have a great practice [Saturday] and be ready on Sunday."

Added Boozer: "We'll just take it one day at a time. Every team's going through a crazy schedule this year. No excuses for us either. We're going to take it one day at a time and keep pushing."

The Bulls will play two back-to-back sets to start their trip, but finish up with a contest on every other day. They leave the United Center having allowed an average of 95.2 in the last five home games, after giving up just 66.8 per contest in the first five.

"It's been crazy. It's been crazy," Rose said of the compressed, 66-game schedule. "But there's no excuses. We know that we still have to go out there and have to play these games. Nobody is trying to hear anything. If anything, they're trying to come in here and beat us or beat us where ever we're at. So we've just got to stay together."

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