In a season full of adversity and distractions, Joakim Noah's focus has never wavered.
While it’s unknown where the Bulls will finish in the Eastern Conference standings when the regular season is over and even more uncertainty in how they’ll fare when postseason play begins, the easy answer to both just might be; as far as Noah takes them.
Dressing just nine players, the Bulls routed the visiting Atlanta Hawks 100-85 thanks in large part to Noah, who notched his fourth career triple-double – almost achieving the feat at halftime – finishing with 19 points, 16 rebounds and a career-high tying 11 assists; good also for his team-high 24th double-double.
Noah joined Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Tom Boerwinkle and Mikey Johnson as the fifth player in franchise history with at least four triple-doubles. He also is the only center this season to notch the achievement.
“Jo was unbelievable,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Offensively, the last 25 games or so, he's been in a great rhythm. He's doing a lot of great things for us. Making plays. He's comfortable on the perimeter. He's comfortable in the post, dribble handoff, pick-and-roll. The ability to make a quick decision, read what the defense is doing, where's the help coming from. He's running the floor.”
In layman’s terms, he’s maximizing every skill set he possibly can.
The Bulls (26-25) outrebounded the Hawks 57-28, which helped lead to a 16-6 advantage in second chance points.
Filling in for Carlos Boozer, who missed his third straight game with a strained left calf, Taj Gibson recorded his eighth double-double of the season with 24 points and 12 rebounds. It was the seventh time this season he’s finished with 20-plus points. He only had five such games in his first four seasons combined.
Jimmy Butler finished with the seventh double-double of his career with 12 points and 13 rebounds. Mike Dunleavy finished with 15 and D.J. Augustin scored 13 off the bench on four-for-six shooting from outside.
Fresh from a two-week west coast road swing, the Bulls (26-25) showed great focus and jumped on the Hawks early, leading by 18 after the first quarter and as much as 25 before the Hawks made a run in the third quarter.
“I thought the first quarter was great,” Thibodeau said. “We came out with a lot of energy on both ends. We got a good pace and we were making good decisions. They are hard to guard. They got 10 threes on us. I thought we made great effort and we blink for a second and they get open.”
The Hawks were led by Lou Williams’ 13 points off the bench. Former Bull Kyle Korver continued his streak of games with a three-pointer made, which is now at 119. He finished with seven points and two-for-four from three.
“Usually when you come back from a trip like that, you exhale,” Noah said. “Nobody exhaled. We’re not worried about distractions or what anybody has to say. We’re just focused on our improvement.”
It’s that focus that continues to carry the Bulls to levels that are still unexplainable to some but not those in the locker room.
"I feel healthy," Noah said. "Last year around this time, I was in a lot of pain. My feet were hurting. I felt like my body was breaking down.
"I'm healthy right now. I couldn't be happier about that."
Neither could the Bulls.