It's a small sample size, but everyone can see the difference in Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah's play recently.
After missing Saturday night's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Noah returned on Monday night and dropped his fourth double-double of the season, with 16 points and 10 rebounds in 30 minutes of action in the Bulls' 110-95 victory over the New Jersey Nets. The 6-foot-11 Noah is starting to play like the man Bulls fans have adored over the past few years and is averaging 12.3 points and 10.7 rebounds in his last three games.
Most importantly, he doesn't appear to be bothered by the sprained left ankle he suffered Friday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Of course, if the Bulls are going to reach the next level, Noah will have to continue playing with the same type of intensity he's shown over the past week, because he can impact the game in numerous ways even when he's struggling offensively. He shot 5-for-8 from the field on Monday, but missed both mid-range jumpers, a shot he has worked hard on but can't seem to recapture. At this point last season, Noah was taking and making the 12- to 15-foot jumper with confidence.
Still, the Bulls are hoping Noah can maintain and build on the activity level he displayed against the Nets moving forward.
"He's been playing at a really level," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters after the game. "Him missing the last game, I was a little concerned about his timing in this game, and he missed a couple bunnies early. But he was extremely active and he got more comfortable as the game went along."
Missing glue: The Bulls were minus Luol Deng on Monday night, and could be without their starting small forward for a while. According to the Chicago Tribune, Deng plans to rest his left wrist for about week before attempting to play through the injury.
In place of Deng, Ronnie Brewer got the start and had 11 points, nine of which in the first quarter. There's no question that the Bulls are going to miss Deng, whom Thibodeau recently called "the glue to our team," but they are confident that the 26-year-old will return in the near future. In the meantime, they certainly have the depth to fill the void.
Before signing with the Bulls in the summer of 2010, Brewer had been a starter for the majority of his career. Kyle Korver has played in big minutes in his career and has proven to be a reliable shooter in Chicago. And the Bulls even have rookie Jimmy Butler chomping at the bit for more minutes.
For the Bulls, the next man always seems to step up when needed, and fans shouldn't expect that to change with Deng, who is averaging 15.9 points and 7.5 rebounds this season, sidelined. Although, it would be bad news for Chicago if Deng will require surgery, but that seems unlikely at this point.
Dating back to 2009-10, Deng had played in 108 consecutive regular-season games.
"Like I've said, obviously we're disappointed for Luol because of all the work he's put in and what he means to our team," Thibodeau said. "But that being said, we also feel very strongly about the people that are filling in. And Ronnie has shown he can handle starting and play extremely well. He did that when Rip was out; he's doing it now. Kyle's a proven player, he's hit a lot of big shots for us. And I thought [Brian] Scalabrine was terrific. And we still have Jimmy. So we feel that we have more than enough."
Added Rip Hamilton: "The schedule's been crazy. You can see all the injuries all around the NBA. But the thing about us [is] guys are really stepping up. Guys are very in tune to what coach Thibs wants us to do. So when one guy goes down, the next guy steps up, and we're all happy for that. When you have players really caring for each other, and when guys get their names called, they're ready to play."
Turning up the defense: After holding their first five home opponents 66.8 points per game, the Bulls have given up an average of 93.6 in their last three contests at the United Center. At 8-0, they're one of two NBA teams that have an undefeated home record.
After scoring just 18 points in first quarter, the Nets had 77 in the final three quarters of Monday's game and shot 48.1 from the field on the night. Obviously, that didn't sit well with the defensive-minded Thibodeau.
"I thought defensively, the first quarter we were good and then after that we were very poor," he told the assembled media.