THE RACE FOR 1ST IN THE EAST
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — During his 30-game absence, it was tough to say who was more eager for Joakim Noah’s return, Bulls fans or Noah himself.
When he returned Feb. 24 at Toronto, there were questions about whether his surgically repaired right thumb would be ready to stand up to the rigors of high-caliber NBA play.
The answer: Just give him a thumbs up.
It’s another one of those good-news, better-news stories in the Bulls’ surprising turnaround. The good news is, Noah’s thumb is virtually a non-issue and he’s quickly returned to being a key contributor.
The better news? Because he’s still working on conditioning and timing after the long layoff, he expects to bring even more this spring. Including the 15-footer he’s been reluctant to take so far.
‘‘I’m ready to get this tape off my finger as soon as I can,’’ Noah said of the precautionary wrap. ‘‘I feel like I’ve still got a lot of areas I can improve in. My conditioning is still not where I want it to be, and there’s still a lot of areas that I feel slow in. What’s exciting right now is how well we’re playing — and we can still get better.’’
In his first nine games back, Noah averaged 9.4 points and 11.7 rebounds, not far below his season averages of 12.8 points and 11.7 rebounds. That includes 12 points and 13 rebounds against the Bobcats.
And after playing under 30 minutes in each of his three games back, he averaged 33.3 minutes in four of the Bulls’ five games before they faced Charlotte, and was right on 33 minutes against the Bobcats. The exception was at Orlando, where he played 161/2 foul-shortened minutes, but was picked up by Omer Asik’s strong relief job.
As for his elbow jumper?
‘‘It’s not really an emphasis right now,’’ he said. ‘‘I have no problem with that. We’re playing pretty well. When I feel comfortable letting it fly, I’ll let it fly.’’
Coach Tom Thibodeau likes what he sees from Noah, especially in the last few games.
‘‘His individual and team defense has been phenomenal,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘Offensively, he’s still a little bit up and down, but that’s to be expected.’’
The coach isn’t fretting over Noah’s mid-range reluctance.
‘‘He’s not as comfortable as he was prior to the injury. That’ll come,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘Each game, he’s gotten more comfortable. He’s gotten to the point now in the post where he’s getting to the spots he wants to get to. The next step will be those elbow jumpers, the 15-to-17-foot shots.’’