Sports

Noah Leads Bulls Past Celtics

By K.C. Johnson, Chicago Tribune reporter

There hasn’t been much consistency throughout this Bulls’ season.

Injuries have ravaged the rotation. When the offense sings, the defense sags — and vice versa.

But through it all, one thing has remained constant — the optimism from players and coaches that matters will improve.

It has sounded mostly hollow thus far. But perhaps the words will ring truer in 2014, which the Bulls kicked off with a 94-82 victory over the Celtics Thursday night at the United Center.

And leading the way was the emotional epicenter of the Bulls, Joakim Noah, who backed his words with actions. Lots and lots of action.

Noah narrowly missed his fourth career triple double — his second came last season against these Celtics — with 17 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. Primal screams aren’t an official statistic, but Noah unleashed a few of those for good measure.

“We just have to keep grinding, a lot of basketball left,” Noah said. “And I think if we just keep our minds into it, it could be a hell of a year.”

Carlos Boozer contributed 16 points and Luol Deng added 14 in an extremely rare low-minute game for him. In just his second game back from missing 9 of 12 with a sore left Achilles, Deng played just 29 minutes.

One game after coach Tom Thibodeau challenged his team to play better in the fourth quarter, the Bulls did that until the end, when they appeared to concentrate more on pushing Noah into history than playing basketball.

“The end of the game, we obviously have to do better,” Thibodeau said. “We were trying to run through him because of the ball pressure.”

The Bulls did move the ball offensively, finishing with 26 assists on their 35 field goals.

Shortly after drawing a rare technical foul — one of the Bulls’ three along with Boozer and, with his league-leading sixth among coaches, Thibodeau — Mike Dunleavy released his frustration with a highlight-reel block of Kris Humphries and putback basket at the other end to close the third.

“I thought the defense was solid throughout,” Thibodeau said. “The rebounding was great. I thought there were a lot of good things to build the lead.”

In the fourth, Taj Gibson provided another highlight when he powered through a flagrant-one foul on Jared Sullinger for a three-point play that he completed after landing hard on his tailbone. Fittingly, Noah provided the assist.

“When you lose a player like Derrick (Rose), everyone has to play well,” Noah said. “Our margin of error is a lot smaller and we’re grinding. (We) lost a lot of close games but overall, I think we’re competing every night.

“We just have to keep improving and I think we’ll have a shot to play in the playoffs if we keep grinding.”

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