With Joakim Noah back in the lineup the Chicago Bulls are starting to feel more and more confident with every passing game.
The Bulls will have one more game to build that confidence before their schedule gets much tougher.
After opening an important five-game road trip with a win, the Central Division-leading Bulls look to hand the lowly Washington Wizards a 15th loss in 17 games when they meet Monday night.
In his third game back following right thumb surgery that kept him sidelined for two months, Noah had eight points and 17 rebounds – including nine on the offensive end – in Saturday’s 83-75 win over Milwaukee.
“The more I’m out on the court, the better I feel and the more energy I have,” said Noah, who is averaging 13.7 rebounds in the last three games. “The longer we get to play together, I think we are going to find out how good we can be as a team.”
Chicago (40-17), which is in a tight race with Boston and Miami for the best record in the Eastern Conference, looks like a title contender when healthy, winning nine of 12 games when Noah, Derrick Rose and Carlos Boozer are all on the court.
“We are getting into a nice rhythm now that everyone is back,” Rose said. “Noah has come back and really helped us. I think we can get nothing but better as the season goes along.”
The Bulls are going to have several opportunities to test themselves against some of the better teams in the East during this road trip. After this game, they visit Atlanta on Wednesday, then play Orlando on Friday before wrapping up the trip in Miami on Sunday.
Before looking too far ahead, Chicago needs to focus on facing a Wizards team that nearly beat one of the league’s best its last time out.
Washington (15-43), an NBA-worst 2-14 since Jan. 24, gave Dallas a scare Saturday, storming back from nine points down with four minutes to play to tie the score at 97 on Jordan Crawford’s jumper with 1:36 left. The Wizards were unable to pull ahead, though, missing five of their next six shots and losing 105-99.
John Wall keyed the comeback, scoring eight of his 24 points in the final three minutes, but also missed two free throws that cost Washington a chance for the upset. As a team, the Wizards missed 10 of 16 from the foul line.
“We shoot free throws – we win the game,” coach Flip Saunders said.
Washington’s offense is showing some signs of life, averaging 100.5 points in its four games since the All-Star break with Wall scoring at least 21 in each of the last three, but it could have trouble against Chicago’s stout defense.
The Bulls, who allow an average of 92.5 points, limited the Bucks to 38.2 percent shooting and improved to 34-1 when allowing 95 points or fewer. This doesn’t bode well for the Wizards, considering they’re 3-27 when failing to score more than 95.
Chicago has won the two meetings with Washington this season, and seven of nine in the series since the start of the 2008-09 season.
The Bulls beat the Wizards at the United Center 103-96 on Nov. 13, as Rose had 24 points and Noah added 21 points and nine boards while Boozer was out. They won in Washington 87-80 on Dec. 22 behind Boozer’s 30 points and Rose’s 25, with Noah sidelined.
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