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Noah Set To Return As Bulls Battle Suns

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The Chicago Bulls could get a boost from the return of Joakim Noah to the lineup, despite winning all three games that the center missed.

Some are wondering how his return could affect Carlos Boozer.

Derrick Rose keeps putting up MVP-type numbers regardless of who is on the floor.

Rose and Boozer may see Noah rejoin the lineup Tuesday night as Chicago’s quest for the Eastern Conference’s top seed continues against the out-of-contention Phoenix Suns at the United Center.

The Bulls (56-20) lead the East by 2 1/2 games over Miami and three over Boston, and they may have a chance to wrap up the No. 1 seed as early as Thursday when they host the Celtics.

Noah, averaging a team-high 11.0 rebounds and 12.1 points, has sat out the past three games with a sprained right ankle but could be ready to come back Tuesday.

“He’s almost there,” coach Tom Thibodeau said after a 113-106 victory over Toronto on Saturday. “We’re going to wait one more day. He’s good straight ahead and not quite there laterally yet.”

Chicago won all three games Noah missed, and Boozer had a big impact. He averaged 21.3 points and 10.7 rebounds in those victories while averaging 16.7 field-goal attempts.

Over the previous five games, after he missed five with a sprained ankle, Boozer attempted 11.2 shots per game as he averaged 12.6 points and 7.4 boards.

While Noah sometimes clogs the lane because he’s a poor outside shooter who focuses more on rebounding, Kurt Thomas is a good mid-range shooter and seemed to give Boozer more space to operate as Thomas started at center the last three games.

Rose finds plenty of room all the time. He had 36 points and 10 assists Saturday for his third double-double in five games, a stretch in which he’s averaging 29.4 points and 9.8 assists.

“That’s what an MVP is I guess,” Toronto’s Jerryd Bayless said after trying to guard Rose on Saturday. “I think he should be it. I can’t speak highly enough about him.”

Phoenix saw first-hand how dominant Rose has become this season. He had 35 points and 12 assists as the Bulls rallied from a 23-point deficit to beat the Suns 123-115 in double-overtime Nov. 24. Rose’s two free throws tied the game late in regulation, then he hit a reverse layup with 0.1 seconds left in the first extra period and scored Chicago’s first five points of the second.

The Bulls have won four of the past five meetings, the lone loss coming last season in Chicago.

Phoenix clinched a playoff spot that night, winning 111-105 on March 30, but was eliminated from this season’s chase with a 114-97 defeat to San Antonio on Sunday.

“I’m a realist. Even if we would’ve won every single game we played, that wouldn’t have guaranteed us getting in the playoffs,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “The chances of that were not good. It is what it is, but that doesn’t mean we can’t compete and play hard and finish on a real positive note. I think that is the thing we have to look at.”

While the Suns (37-39) have dropped five of six, the Bulls have won 15 of 17.

Luol Deng, picked seventh overall by the Suns in 2004 but dealt to Chicago on draft day, has averaged 19.5 points versus Phoenix – his best against any opponent. He had 26 points and 10 rebounds Nov. 24.

It’s unclear if Steve Nash will return after missing the past two games with flu-like symptoms.

Copyright 2010 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. STATS LLC and The Associated Press contributed to this article. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.