TORONTO—Bulls’ All-Star center Joakim Noah started the regularly season slowly, not a totally unexpected occurrence for someone who only played in one preseason game.
But as of late, he’s been playing better, with his offense catching up to his always-active defense. In Friday night’s 96-80 win over the Raptors, Noah had his best scoring output of the campaign, going for 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting, as well as grabbing nine rebounds.
“I feel good. I’ve been feeling good for three or four games now. Just trying to get better every game,” Noah said. “We’re still a work in progress. It was a good win for us [Friday night] and we have a big game [Saturday]. It’s exciting.”
Noah’s solid play didn’t go unnoticed in the Bulls’ locker room.
“The last three games, actually, you can see it. He’s getting really good position, he’s taking his time, he’s getting a quality shot off, he’s making a second, third effort to the offensive board. So you can see it’s coming,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “When you put the work thing and that’s the important thing to understand, is that you have to work hard every day as a team and when that happens, good things will happen.”
[MORE: Bulls cautious approach with Rose the right one]
Carlos Boozer concurred: “Jo looked great from the opening tip. He was aggressive, crashed the boards. His patented left-hand hook shot was looking good. As he’s getting his rhythm, he’s getting better and better. He looked great.”
Kirk Hinrich chimed in: “You know it’s going to come. It seemed like early it seemed like he was second-guessing himself. It seems like he’s starting to play more instinctively.”
Butler’s shooting coming around
Aside from his new haircut, there was another visible change in Jimmy Butler during Friday’s game. The Bulls’ starting shooting guard knocked down outside shots.
After struggling from the perimeter early in the regular season, the third-year Marquette product—who played against former college teammate Dwight Buycks, the Raptors’ backup point guard—Butler hit two of his three three-point attempts against Toronto, which Thibodeau had been predicting would happen sooner than later.
“So every night, I’m in my office. I see him come in, I see him shoot,” said the coach, tacitly acknowledging the late nights he puts in at the Berto Center. “Jimmy’s been putting a lot of extra work in, comes in every night to shoot and I knew it would just be a matter of time before it would start dropping for him.”
[RELATED: Bulls get back to their roots in win over Raptors]
Butler also got to the free-throw line six times, another aspect of his game that had been lacking, but an area where he’s been known to excel. He wasn’t the only Bulls player to get hot from the outside either, as the Bulls hit seven of their 16 shots from deep—including All-Star small forward Luol Deng, who had only made one triple coming into the contest, shot 2-for-4—which pleased their coach.
“Well, I thought the ball movement, the post-up and then the kick-out, and then the swing, the ball moved freely and that’s what it has to do. You find the open man. As long as when the ball comes out of the post and they’re in an over-help or a double-team, you’ve got to move the ball freely. You’ve got to make the extra pass,” Thibodeau explained. “As long as everyone’s working on their three-point shot, I feel good about it. I know that at some point, with the confidence, the concentration and the work and you can’t underestimate how important work is. You have to work to play well. When you practice well, you play well. That’s critical."
Raptors’ DeRozan torches Bulls’ defense
The Bulls played excellent defense throughout Friday night’s game, with one exception: Raptors swingman DeMar DeRozan got unconsciously hot in the third quarter, scoring 28 of his career-high 37 points in the second half.
“Defensively, they’re tough to match up with, and if they knock a couple in, they can get going, so some of those shots DeRozan made, I thought were defended well. He got the hot hand and he made some big shots,” Thibodeau explained. “They went through a stretch where Rudy [Gay] got banged up a little bit and they really had to run their offense through him, and we didn’t do a good job during that stretch giving the appropriate help, and we have to recognize that.”
Even with DeRozan making 13 of his 22 shot attempts, the Raptors still shot only 35.4 percent from the floor and at halftime, before his barrage began, they had only scored 31 points in the entire game.