DEERFIELD, Ill. — Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau can play coy if he wants to — and he will, and did — but it’s become obvious that All-Star center Joakim Noah will return to the lineup for Tuesday night’s regular-season opener against the defending-champion Heat in Miami.
“100 percent,” Noah responded, without hesitation, when asked to assess his chances of playing in the contest.
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Despite playing only 19 minutes in the preseason due to a lingering groin strain suffered in the Bulls’ first week of training camp, the team’s defensive anchor believes he’ll be good to go when the time comes to face off with the squad’s longtime nemesis.
“I’m optimistic about Miami,” Noah said after Sunday’s practice at the Berto Center. “I’m feeling pretty good. It’s different than a game, but I feel excited about Tuesday. “If my groin was still bothering me, we’d have to talk about it because I didn’t want this to linger all season. It would have been really tough to sit out a game that I’ve been waiting for all summer, that I’ve been training for all summer. It would have been tough.”
Although Noah hasn’t been able to play during the exhibition campaign besides from his stint in the Bulls’ home win over Detroit, the high-energy big man believes conditioning won’t be a major issue for him after putting in extra time before game, after practices and on off days, in addition to working with the team’s medical staff and French osteopath Fabrice Gautier, the man who aided his near-miraculous recovery from plantar fasciitis last spring.
“I’ll be fine. I’m not worried about it. I’ve been working on my conditioning the whole time. Even with the groin it was more of a lateral problem, a jumping problem, more than just running straight forward. So I was doing a lot of running the whole time. I’ll be fine,” he emphasized. “Just doing everything I can. Even in the weight room, just doing as much as I can, as long as it’s pain-free. I feel 100 percent right now, I have no problems in my groin. I wanted to play in that last preseason game, but Thibs said no. I was pissed about it, but I think it was the right decision.”
For Thibodeau’s part, the coach continued to harp on the fact that Noah hasn’t been a full participant on practice after being “shut down” by the team following the Pistons game, though he acknowledged that the center has made strides as of late.
“We want to see how he’s feeling tomorrow. He moved great today. He’s been pain-free for four or five days now. We’ll see where he is,” Thibodeau said. “Everyone needs conditioning. Everyone needs practice. It’s a team sport. You need everyone working together. You put your team together piece by piece and he’s a big part of the team. We need him out there. You need reps together. That’s important.”