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Bulls win, but Noah to have surgery
by Sam Smith
Posted on Dec 15
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The Bulls Tuesday left the United States for a game with the Toronto Raptors with a winning streak and a potential All Star center.
They come back after defeating the Raptors Wednesday 110-93 with a seventh straight victory, but no starting center.
Customs may have gotten tougher.
That’s because the Bulls announced as soon as Wednesday’s game ended that potential All-Star Joakim Noah will have surgery Thursday to repair a torn ligament in his thumb and should miss eight to 10 weeks, keeping him out into mid-March.
It’s a major blow for the team, on one of its best runs in a decade with a 16-8 record. The press release is on Bulls.com.
“It’s disappointing for Jo,” coach Tom Thibodeau acknowledged following the game. “For us, we’re confident in the abilities of the guys we have. We have more than enough to win.
“Taj (Gibson) has played center for us,” said Thibodeau. “Kurt with what he did in Milwaukee (helping the Bucks close the season fast and going seven games with Atlanta in the playoffs substituting for the injured Andrew Bogut). Lu (Deng) has played played well. A number of players will have to step up.”
The Bulls don’t play again until Saturday against Vinny Del Negro and the Clippers, but there’s no reason the Bulls still cannot remain highly competitive, if certainly not quite as good.
After all, they lose one of the league’s top rebounders and a regular double/double player, though I personally don’t see the disaster of last season when Noah went out with his plantar fasciitis and the Bulls lost 10 straight.
The main element is they now have Carlos Boozer, who feasted on the small Raptors front court with 34 points and 12 rebounds in just 26 minutes with 11 free throws. Though Boozer isn’t a seven footer like Noah and nowhere near the defender, he does spread the floor and give the Bulls a solid inside option.
Boozer was dominant Wednesday against the smaller Raptors front court with Andrea Bargnani out injured. He constantly got inside position and scored on a variety of postups, spin moves, pick and rolls and jumpers. The Bulls, as a result, never trailed and led by 19 at halftime and 27 going into the fourth quarter when a reserve group let up for a time before the Bulls again pulled away. Boozer now is averaging 28 points and 15 rebounds the last two games as he seems mostly recovered from a broken hand that sidelined him two months.
So, sadly, Noah now goes out for an estimated 30 games and also losing his likely chance to be an All-Star. Though it’s devastating to Noah, who was effusive just the other night after the Bulls beat the Pacers and Noah said at that much over .500 and with a winning streak it’s the best Bulls team he’s been on and the most excited he’s been about playing and for his team.
“It’s not what I want,” said Noah, who asked to play even knowing he was having surgery as he was told he wouldn’t do additional damage. “I have to get back to playing at a high level. I’m tired of taking anti-inflammatory (medicine) every time I play. I’m tired of not dribbling with my right hand. I’m going to miss playing. It’s frustrating because I feel we have a chance to be really, really good. But I know this is what needs to be done. In the long run, this team can do something special. But this hurts.”
Still, it may look a bit better for the Bulls once the shock wears off in the morning.
Ten of their next 11 games are against teams with losing records. And the only team with a winning record, the Knicks on Christmas Day, basically play a small lineup with Amar’e Stoudemire at center and Ray Felton at point guard, their stars. You have to like your chances against them with Boozer and Derrick Rose. And otherwise, centers the Bulls will see in the East in the next few weeks include Ben Wallace, Spencer Hawes, JaVale McGee, Anderson Varejao and again whomever the Raptors call a center. The Bulls will have to deal with Andrew Bogut and Brook Lopez, who rarely are confused with Kareem and Wilt.
Given Thomas has only played in five games and a total of 12 combined minutes and Omer Asik likely isn’t ready to a starter, I’d hope Thibodeau goes with Taj Gibson and Boozer to start, perhaps Gibson at center given he’s a better defender.
Yes, that’s a small lineup, but that shouldn’t be a major issue in the East.
Also, the Bulls have had a lot of success this season and Thibodeau seems comfortable using Deng at power forward in a small lineup. In some respects, this kind of lineup puts the Bulls in position to score more and they likely need to be more of a running, uptempo team to take advantage of being small and having more scorers and offensive options on the floor.
I don’t expect the Bulls to add another big man given they have four with Boozer, Gibson, Thomas and Asik and the chances of playing a fifth is remote. You’re not getting someone from the D-league and the latest center to be picked up, Earl Barron in Phoenix, likely wouldn’t play, anyway. I don’t see players like Steven Hunter, Fabricio Oberto or Randolph Morris. The Bulls can get Brian Scalabrine back out there as well.
This does likely take the Bulls out of the chances to trade for Carmelo Anthony as Gibson figured to be a major piece in any deal, though once the Bulls declined to include Noah there likely was little chance for a deal, anyway.
And Noah will be back this season.
Look at it this way. He’ll be rested for the playoffs. What great planning, eh?
This also makes it more questionable of whether the Bulls could add a shooting guard since there would be no way they’d be able to give up Gibson in any deal for a high level, starting shooting guard, like an O.J. Mayo. So the Bulls likely would be left to trying to make a deal for another guard, assuming they even were interested, with basically draft choices, which is not an appealing prospect. Yes, James Johnson could be included, though his value is little because he doesn’t play.
Instead, I believe Johnson could help the team, and perhaps with a stretched lineup now and Deng playing more four we’ll see Johnson more as a backup small forward.
Though the Bulls said Noah hurt his thumb on the road trip in the final game against Sacramento and played since, they aren’t fully clear when it happened.
Noah has played with discomfort and pain since, though he has performed well for the most part. What’s been most noticeable is he finishes with his left hand more often, though he always has been a bit better going left. What’s been more noticeable has been the way he hasn’t finished strong when going to his right, more often flipping the ball up instead of dunking.
So now the mystery of that zero rebound game against Orlando the first game after the road trip is clearer. Still, Noah had double/doubled in four of his last eight games and missed by a point in one and one point and one rebound in another. Though he had been wearing a wrap on his thumb, I’d thought perhaps the strain of the extra minutes with Boozer out had been slowing his production in the last month. Noah always told even teammates he was fine and with Rose and Gibson also going through various issues, it seemed Noah was playing through it. But it just became too much.
Interestingly, Rose, who was the more questionable coming into the game after his brutal fall against the Pacers, played about 30 minutes. He had just six points as the Raptors made it a point to try to deny him and trap him when he came near the paint, so Rose had 11 assists and worked to perfection the inside/outside game Thibodeau always talks about and also gave up the ball more in the half court and let the offense operate more through Boozer.
Meanwhile, Noah had been insisting on playing through the injury the past few weeks and generally has played big minutes, as many as 40 in the win over the Lakers last week. He said he had a similar injury and surgery in high school and Kirk Hinrich had a similar injury previously with the Bulls when he missed two months.
Noah, typically like with the plantar fasciitis last season, didn’t want the surgery and wanted to continue to play.
He probably could have continued like he did Wednesday against Toronto and he did dunk a few balls and made plays, though tentative at times.
By continuing to play he wouldn’t necessarily have made the injury worse. However, had he continued to play the damage to the ligament would have caused a more complex and difficult surgery and perhaps had greater ramifications for healing and his future use of his thumb.
So the Bulls decided as they just extended Noah’s contract for five years to be cautious with primary concern for Noah’s long term health and have the surgery now.
“It is going to be tough,” said Boozer, now the big one/two punch with Rose. “I just told him to keep his head up and that I started the season with something similar. Mine was a bone but his is a ligament. I told him we will try and hold it down for him. He is a warrior for playing through it for two or three weeks. I think you have to take your hat off to him for giving up his hand for us as long as he has.We have confidence in the guys that are going to be playing in his absence. But we also wish him a speedy recovery.”
Which also means Noah can return for the playoffs fresh and ready to go, and Thibodeau left no doubt he expects his team to be there, though certainly in question is whether they can win the Central Division, which seemed certain just a few hours ago. Still, the division is the weakest in the NBA and the Bulls now have a five game cushion in the division and have a good chance to hold on given they have Rose and no one else does.
“We’re looking at what’s best for him in the long term now,” said Thibodeau. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s part of the game. Guys get hurt and have surgery. You have to do it. I’m confident we have more than enough to win with.
“One through 14, I have a lot of confidence in the guys,” said Thibodeau. “We have several players (to substitute for Noah) who have started a number of games in this league. Kurt gives us a tremendous low post defender and pick and roll player to add to what Derrick is doing.
“Taj has played extremely well in his minutes and I’ve been trying to figure out how to give him more,” said Thobodeau. “I can’t say enough about what Lu has done this season. He’s guarded twos, threes, fours. He’s made plays for us and his minutes will go up, also.
“Our guys are confident,” said Thibodeau. “We’re disappointed for Jo. He’s put a lot of work in. It’s unfortunate. But we know we have more than enough to win with.”