No matter the early start, energy wasn’t an issue as Joakim Noah exhibited 90 minutes prior to tip-off, dribble-weaving his way through team staff and media 90.
That energy would carry over throughout the game as he notched his second triple-double of the season and fifth of his career as the Bulls cruised past the Knicks 109-90 for their ninth win in the last 10 games.
The win was also the first time during coach Tom Thibodeau’s tenure that the team score 100 points or more in four straight regulation games.
Noah finished with 13 points, 12 rebounds and a career-high 14 assists. The assist total is a franchise high for a center. His energy and play ignited the team to their seventh wire-to-wire victory of the season.
“It was huge because it gives you another weapon,” said Thibodeau on Noah’s play. “It opens a lot of different things for us. Then we got a rhythm on three’s and guys shared the ball.”
The Bulls (33-26) also finished with a franchise low three turnovers and seven players finished in double figures in scoring.
The game was never in question for the Bulls as they jumped on the Knicks right out of the gates, leading by 21 in the opening quarter and 37-16, which tied a team-high for points in any quarter. Jimmy Butler got to the line seven times alone in the starting period and finished the game 9-of-14 from the free throw line.
“(The preparation) is different for an early start. It’s real important to come out and come out with the right mindset because it’s early,” said Taj Gibson on the game’s noon tipoff. “We (had) a good three-point shooting team and we couldn’t let them get confidence early. They get confidence early, it’s really hard to shut them off. We started the game out on the right tone. You could tell they were frustrated early and we just kept our foot on their neck.”
The Knicks would get no closer than nine late in the second quarter but still entered halftime down 59-48. The Bulls ball movement (30 assists on 39 made field goals) and 48-20 advantage in points in the paint along with getting to the line 33 times (23 made) was too much for a team that appears to coming apart at the wrong time of the season.
Despite his impressive play, almost recording his triple-double in the first half with 11 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds, Noah sprained his right ankle early in the third quarter, but stayed in to play most of it before headed to the locker room with 3:21 remaining to get re-taped.
He said said the ankle felt like (expletive), but later said he's had worse.
For the Bulls, they’ve been the best team in the Eastern Conference since the start of the new year with a 21-8 record – 12-18 at the close of last year – which is more impressive considering they appeared too devastated by the loss of Derrick Rose for the season and the trade of Luol Deng in early January. The combination of both, along with Thibodeau’s “more than enough to win with” attitude, has only seemed to strengthen their resolve and reaffirm all of the confidence they entered this season with.
“When you get a group that makes the type of commitment they’ve made, something special can happen,” said Thibodeau.
“We feel like we’re the hungriest team playing in the NBA,” Noah said. “I want a ring. I want a ring so bad. And I know that one day our time will come.”
The vibes are completely different than just months ago and while many will still doubt the Bulls can make any real noise in the postseason, the opinions of outsiders are easily tuned out with the roll they’re on.
“The sky’s the limit,” Gibson said. “There’s no ceiling to what we think we can do. We just have to keep guys motivated, hungry and we’re in a rhythm right now. We’re jumping on teams, our defense is really clicking and our offense is finding different fashions to score in. We’re just feeding off each other and having fun doing it.
“You have to believe in yourself, even when others don’t believe in you. In the beginning of the year, everyone was writing us off. We always believed that it’s us in this locker room that could change that. We don’t really care what people on the outside think and that’s the right mindset we have to have. That’s what we’ve been doing.”