Joakim Noah understood the importance of entering the All-Star break, the NBA's unofficial midway point of the season, on a high note in order to carry some momentum into the second half of this marathon, 66-game schedule. Consider that a mission accomplished for the Bulls' center, who will turn 27 years old on Saturday.
He celebrated in grand fashion, posting his first career triple-double in Wednesday night's 110-91 drubbing of the Milwaukee Bucks. He put up 13 points, 13 rebounds, a career-high 10 assists and a plus-minus of +20 and took full advantage of the extra attention teammate Derrick Rose was receiving. Of course, it didn't hurt his cause that the Bulls shot a blistering 54.4 percent from the field and displayed the type of passing even coach Tom Thibodeau was pleased with, piling up 32 assists on 43 baskets.
It also didn't hurt Noah's cause that he has been in the same position -- executing as the primary playmaker when the opponent is trapping Rose, the reigning league MVP -- time and time again this season. His teammates have seen him do it many times over the past couple years and know that his vision and ball handling are attributes that separate him from other centers in the league -- including, yes, Dwight Howard.
"For a big man he's great at making decisions coming down the floor," Bulls forward Luol Deng told reporters after the game. "A lot of big men will get a little hesitant with having the ball in their hands, but he's comfortable with it."
Added Rose: "I'm very happy for him. He definitely played well today, one of the reasons why we won, passing the ball. ... He's one of the rare bigs in the league that can dribble with the ball and make plays. I'm fortunate and lucky to have him on my team."
Indeed, more often than not, the 6-foot-11 product has excelled when the ball is in his hands, either in the halfcourt or transition offense. Besides the fact that he has the ability to bring uncanny energy and activity on a nightly basis, Noah is the only big man in the league who can grab a rebound and take it coast-to-coast for a layup or dish off to a teammate.
"[Triple-doubles] are hard to get ... I was pleased with the way he played," Thibodeau said. "I thought they did a good job with Derrick in the pick-and-roll. Jo ended up being the guy who got the ball and I thought he made a lot of good plays. And that's a unique skill set that he has -- his ability to get the ball in the middle of the floor, make good reads and create easy offense for you."
From the outset Wednesday, Noah exhibited lots of energy and was well on his way to his milestone. He had four points, five assists and four rebounds through one quarter of play and thanks to the fact that his teammates were in his ear reminding him of his statistics, he was able to attain the mark without even playing in the final frame.
Amazingly, Noah attempted only six shots and notched the feat in just 29 minutes, 49 seconds of action and by the 38-second mark of the third quarter, with an and-one, two-handed dunk. Moments later, he knocked down a 19-foot jumper from the left corner that ended the third and capped off a masterful performance, one that cemented him as the first Bulls center to drop a triple-double since Artis Gilmore in 1977. He received plenty of help, too, as Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik combined for 37 points and 21 rebounds
For Noah, it was yet another strong outing in February. He is averaging 11.3 points, 11 rebounds and 2.7 assists this month and has grabbed 29 boards in his last two games since being held scoreless in Saturday afternoon's disappointing 97-85 loss to the New Jersey Nets. Noah has been a "manchild" over the past month, as Boozer put it, and is hoping to ride the positive vibe into the second half of the campaign, when he knows he must have a lot less clunkers than he did in the first.
"That's a roller-coaster for you," Noah said of feeling dejected just four days ago and then pouring in a strong effort against the Bucks. "I've just got to find a way to be more consistent out there, play with energy and do my thing."
The fifth-year center scored in double figures in just four of his first 17 games. So, what are the reasons behind the fact that he has done that in 13 of his last 17? The Bulls know that whatever it is, Noah must bottle it up and continue to build on it as the compressed season wears on.
"Confidence," Rose told the assembled media. "He's got a lot of confidence right now. He's feeling good about himself and feeling good about his jump shot. He's just playing hard and competes while he's out there."
"Jo's been working hard. The schedule's crazy. There's going to be ups and downs. He started slow, his conditioning got better, and he's playing at a high level right now," Deng added.
A year ago, Noah's early-season injury cost him his first All-Star berth. This season, the energetic big man probably wishes he could redo the first month of the season, because if he had played like he is right now he would have been a shoo-in to join teammates Rose and Deng and coach Thibodeau at the All-Star Game Sunday in Orlando, Fla.
However, that's in the past and Noah, like the rest of the Chicago locker room, is designed to focus on a game-to-game basis -- as the coaching staff bars the team from thinking about the past or future. It's all about the present for the Bulls, who hit their four-day break with a 27-8 record and as winners of four of their last five games.
Noah announced after Wednesday's win that the Bulls will have a team function later in the night, presumably to celebrate his special occasion on and off the court. The fifth-year veteran had exactly the type of performance he wanted against the Bucks heading into the break and will now have a little fun before taking on the challenges that remain in 2011-12.
He's cognizant of his achievement, but he's well aware that there's a much larger, a much more critical, task at hand for himself and the Bulls.
"We're not playing for stats. We're just trying to get wins," he said. "Obviously it's a very humbling accomplishment. But we're playing for more than that."