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Concern grows over Joakim Noah’s subpar play for Bulls

Joakim Noah

Joakim Noah

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Updated: April 11, 2011 3:46PM

NEW YORK — Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau never wants you to see him sweat. But his concern about Joakim Noah is starting to show.

Noah’s subpar performance over the course of four games since returning from a sprained right ankle might be the biggest current threat to the Bulls’ hopes of meeting their No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and reaching the NBA Finals.

The 6-11 center is averaging 5.5 rebounds in the four games, including four in 18 minutes in the Bulls’ 102-99 victory over the Orlando Magic on Sunday in Orlando. The most telling statistic from that game is the 18 minutes — a sure sign that Thibodeau’s level of concern over Noah’s health and production is reaching another stage. Thibodeau replaced Noah with Taj Gibson with 5:42 to play in the fourth quarter and Noah never returned.

Thibodeau has been loathe to blame Noah’s ineffectiveness on his ankle injury. Asked about it after Noah had six rebounds in 23 minutes against the Celtics last week and he almost reflexively said, ‘‘He’s fine.’’

He wouldn’t even acknowledge that he was babying Noah’s minutes. Noah did not play in the fourth quarter of that game, either.

‘‘That’s just the way the game was going,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘The group that was in there was playing well, so we stayed with them a little bit longer.’’

But Thibodeau changed his tune a bit after Noah’s four-rebound, 18-minute performance against the Magic. ‘‘He’s got to do better,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘He’s capable. We need him. We need him to play better. And he will.’’

At this point of the season, the Noah situation is veering toward the “should-he-play-or-should-he-rest” argument that blew up in the Bulls’ face last season with Noah’s plantar fasciitis. That was clearly a more problematic injury, but it was still worth asking Sunday whether Noah would be better off resting until the playoffs.

‘‘The thing you have to think about with him is he missed so much time all season [30 games because of thumb surgery],’’ Thibodeau said, ‘‘so he was just starting to get his timing back when he went down with the ankle injury.

‘‘Then there’s another week’s set back there [with the ankle]. He did a good job with his rehab, but I think it’s important for him to get some games under his belt before we head into the playoffs, so he’s comfortable with his game. And offensively he’s not where he was at the start of the season and we’re hopeful that he can get that back.’’

The sooner, the better. The Bulls are 25-8 without Noah this season. But it’s a different game now. Noah’s effort on the court is contagious and the Bulls missed that Sunday. Noah didn’t have the energy he usually brings, and the Bulls followed his lead. With Noah going full-speed, the Bulls outrebounded the Magic and Dwight Howard 50-30 in an 89-81 victory at Orlando on March 4. They outrebounded the Magic 37-33 on Sunday, but the Magic had 16 offensive rebounds to only five for the Bulls.

‘‘The last game we played here, we rebounded the ball great and they had Howard,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘[Sunday] they spread us out and the only people on that board fighting for it were the Magic. If you don’t go into this game with a multiple-effort mentality .. they’re going to hurt you with the three or the second shot. In this case they hurt us with both.’’

Noah’s injuries caused enough problems for the Bulls last season — most of the worst of it was not his fault. For some reason, the guy always seems to be in the middle of it. For the Bulls sake, it better not get any worse than it already is. A 60-win season is at stake.

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