Just in case the rest of the Eastern Conference forgot about Joakim Noah during the Bulls’ six game road trip out west, the All-Star sent out a friendly reminder Tuesday night.
Noah recorded his fourth career triple-double in the Bulls’ 100-85 win over the Atlanta Hawks, tallying 19 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists as the Bulls (26-25) moved over .500 and won at the United Center for the first time since Jan. 20.
“It feels great to play well,” Noah said. “There’s no better feeling, especially when you win.”
With the Hawks missing Al Horford – Noah’s teammate at Florida University – Noah went to work early against the far less versatile Gustavo Ayon, seeing most of his time on the perimeter, looking for open cutters and putting the ball on the floor to the basket.
[MORE: Noah ignites Bulls in homecoming victory against Hawks]
The results went as expected as Noah logged six points, six rebounds and an impressive six assists in the first quarter alone as the Bulls raced out to a 33-17 lead. He had eight dimes by halftime, added a behind-the-back dish late in the third quarter and dropped in his 10th helper on a kickout to Taj Gibson, who extended the Bulls’ dwindling lead to 15 early in the fourth quarter.
“To be that size and see the floor – he can dribble, too – you don’t find many big men like that in the league,” said DJ Augustin, who finished with 13 points on four 3-pointers and two assists.
It was Noah’s first home game since Jan. 24 – he missed the Jan. 27 contest against the Timberwolves with an illness – and the first since it was announced he had been chosen as an All-Star reserve.
And as Tom Thibodeau said at shootaround the Bulls needed to do, Noah gave fans a reason to cheer all night. He also handily won the matchup of All-Stars, as Paul Millsap, defended primarily by Gibson, scored just 15 points on 5-for-16 shooting and two rebounds – the Bulls won the rebounding battle 57-28.
“I thought Jo was unbelievable,” remarked Thibodeau.
For Noah, last year’s injury-plagued season is finally in the rear-view mirror. Exactly one year ago Noah lumbered through 38 minutes in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Tonight he was all smiles, cracking jokes with teammates and admitting his health is as good as it’s been in a long time.
“I feel healthy. Last year around this time I was in a lot of pain, my feet were hurting and it felt like my body was breaking down,” Noah said. “I’m healthy right now and couldn’t be happier.”
Added Thibodeau: “I think the big thing is he’s healthy, he’s gotten into a rhythm. I think missing training camp set him back offensively. Defensively he’s been terrific all year. He’s been in a great rhythm and he’s doing a lot of great things for us.”
For a team returning from a six-game road trip played in warm weather against daunting Western Conference teams, a letdown could have occurred. But not on Noah’s watch. The Bulls entered Tuesday knowing the importance of competing against a Hawks team just one-half game ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings.
“I think we played really well tonight, a lot of guys stepped up,” Noahs aid. “Usually you come back from a West Coast trip you exhale, but nobody exhaled.”
Noah was able to exhale after the game, but despite a comfortable, double-digit lead in the closing minute of the fourth quarter, the pressure was still on him when he stepped to the line for two free throws.
The Bulls led 98-85 with 38.5 seconds remaining when Hawks point guard Jeff Teague fouled Noah on a drive to the basket.
So with free Big Macs on the line, Noah did for the fans what he did for his team all night: he stepped up and calmly sank both shots, sending the crowd of 21,325 into hysterics that only free fast food can induce.
“Those were tough free throws for Big Macs,” Noah said with a smile, admitting he knew what was on the line. “I could definitely feel it.”