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Joakim Noah’s ankle is improving, but he still misses Game 5

Injured Bulls center Joakim Noah sits bench during pre-game warmups before Chicago Bulls battle Philadelphi76ers game five first round NBA

Injured Bulls center Joakim Noah sits on the bench during pre-game warmups before the Chicago Bulls battle the Philadelphia 76ers in game five of the first round of the NBA playoffs Tuesday May 8, 2012 at he United Center in Chicago. | TOM CRUZE~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 11, 2012 9:22AM

Joakim Noah was on crutches the day after he sprained his left ankle in the Game 3 loss in Philadelphia. He was putting weight on the injured joint while using a walking boot two days later. He walked to the locker room before Game 5 on Tuesday at the United Center without wearing a brace outside of his high-top sneakers.

He walked with a slight limp, but the Bulls center appears to be improving daily. Now that his teammates extended their first-round series with the 76ers, Noah might return for Game 6.

“I hope so,” Kyle Korver said. “I don’t know. It was a pretty bad sprain, but Jo is a pretty tough guy.”

Noah rode a stationary bike during Tuesday’s shootaround at the Berto Center and shot free throws afterward. Coach Tom Thibodeau called Noah’s availability a “game-time decision.” At game time, Noah was on the bench in street clothes.

“I’m sure they’re prepared whether he plays or doesn’t play,” Thibodeau said when asked if there was an advantage to concealing Noah’s status. “Going in, you know the personnel of their team. You know the strengths and weaknesses of all their guys. They’ll be ready.”

Omer Asik started Game 5 at center and played 27:39. Reserve power forward Taj Gibson also got some time at center, and he logged 25:19.

Gibson stands tall

An already physical first half got even more so when Taj Gibson and ex-Bull Elton Brand battled for a loose ball with 2:25 left in the second. Neither player would give up, and the two eventually had to be separated as players including Carlos Boozer and Evan Turner joined the scrum.

Bulls coaches and trainers prevented Bulls players from leaving the bench, which would’ve resulted in an automatic suspension.

Double technical fouls on Gibson and Brand were called on the play. The two later seemed to settle their differences during a conversation on the floor.

“No one wants to get eliminated at home,” Gibson said. “It was just guys being aggressive. I respect Elton Brand and look up to him.”

Gibson also twisted his ankle in the third quarter. He was limping after the game. His status for Game 6 will be re-evaluated Wednesday.

“Taj is playing great basketball for us right now,” Thibodeau said. “You hate to see anyone go down. He’s got a lot of toughness. If he can go he’ll go.”

Softening his stance

NBA commissioner David Stern has softened his stance on the lockout-abbreviated season contributing to a rash of injuries.

“I don’t know,” Stern told Jim Rome on CBS Sports Network on Tuesday. “As I was reading about it this morning, I think there’s some part of it that may be related to that. Some part of it is luck. Some part of it is lack of preparedness by our players before the season began. It’s a combination of things.”

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