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Bulls optimistic about playoff chances, top Celtics 94-82

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Updated: January 3, 2014 9:39PM



Joakim Noah has been watching the standings.

Yes, even in early January.

“Of course. It’s our job. We do pay attention to it,’’ the Bulls center said on Thursday.

And NBA players that say they don’t?

“They’re lying,’’ Noah said.

That’s why at 13-18, this is a Bulls team that is suddenly starting to feel very good about itself. Not only because of the 94-82 win over Boston at the United Center, but because a lifeless Eastern Conference makes it so a team five games under .500 is still in playoff contention.

Especially a team that is as close to being back to full strength as it has been all season long.

“I think it’s great [to have everyone back],’’ Noah said. “We’ve just got to keep grinding, a lot of basketball left and I think that if we just keep grinding, keep our minds into it, it could be a hell of a year.

“We’re competing every night, and I think we just have to keep improving, keep getting better, and I think we’ll have a shot to play in the playoffs if we keep grinding. And in the playoffs anything can happen.’’

First things first, and that meant getting past a Boston team (13-18) that was a half game in front of the Bulls in the East.

They can thank Noah for helping change that, as the All-Star Center was just an assist away from his first triple-double since he scored 23 points with 21 rebounds and 11 blocks on Feb. 28, 2013 against Philadelphia.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying, as Noah made several attempts at it in the final few minutes against the Celtics, including hitting Jimmy Butler for a jump-shot attempt with the clock running down on the game. Butler missed, and instead Noah had to settle for 17 points, 11 rebounds and nine assist, leading the Bulls in all three categories for the game.

It appeared that Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was angry with the Bulls forcing the action to get Noah that last assist, but Thibodeau cleared it up after the game that it was not the case. In fact, Thibodeau was calling for the offense to run through Noah with Boston pressing and double-teaming in the backcourt, and just didn’t like the lack of execution in those final minutes.

“The end of the game, we obviously have to do better,’’ Thibodeau said. We were trying to run through [Noah].

“We’ve always run a lot of the offense through him and that’s one of his strengths. He’s very unselfish. I like the way Joakim played. The rebounding, his passing, his defense. That was one of the things we talked about [Thursday], when you’re not shooting well, concentrate on the other things you can do to help the team.’’

And if the Bulls were in fact pressing the action to try and get Noah the triple-double, Boston rookie coach Brad Stevens wasn’t offended by it.

“I had no idea [Noah] was close,’’ Stevens said. “We had a triple-double three weeks ago, and I had no idea.’’

What Stevens did know was that they didn’t have many answers for slowing Noah down.

“I just think Noah is an all-around winning guy,’’ Stevens said. “He’s a guy that just makes his teammates better in different ways.’’

Email: jcowley@suntimes.com



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