Chicago's Joakim Noah improved on what's already been his greatest season as a pro with a 30-point, 23-rebound performance in the Chicago Bulls' 108-104 win over the Detroit Pistons on Friday. Not typically known as a scorer, Noah connected on 12 of his 19 field-goal attempts (and six of seven free throws) en route to his career night.
With the Bulls battling mediocrity (10-8) minus former MVP Derrick Rose (ACL), Noah has provided them with consistent production to hold their place in the playoff picture.
Coach Tom Thibodeau has needed more offense out of his defensive specialist, and Noah has responded with his best scoring season to date (13.9 points per game). Noah told NBA.com's Dana Gauruder he's "more comfortable" offensively this season following Friday night's performance.
His numbers reflect that comfort. His field-goal percentage may have dipped (48.0 percent) with his increased shooting opportunities (11.1 field-goal attempts per game). But he has converted 42 percent of his mid-range attempts.
And he's managed these offensive improvements without sacrificing the defensive prowess that led to his selection as the ninth overall pick in the 2009 draft. He's still a defensive pest, swatting away shots (2.2 blocks per game) and keeping his opponents out of good post position.
Who is Chicago's key player without Rose?
The up-and-down play of Chicago's second unit has forced Thibodeau to ride his consistent performers more than he'd like. But Noah has responded by logging over 39 productive minutes per game.
The impending return of Rose may alleviate some of the club's backcourt woes, but it won't lighten Noah's workload. With Taj Gibson stuck in neutral (6.2 points per game) and veteran Nazr Mohammed relegated to garbage time, Thibodeau will continue to trot out Noah out of necessity.
It's just an added bonus that he's been so effective in that plentiful playing time.
The Central Division is there for Chicago's taking.
The Indiana Pacers (92-89 losers to the Denver Nuggets on Friday) and the Milwaukee Bucks (108-93 winners over the Charlotte Bobcats) have failed to capitalize on the absence of Rose. With both teams sitting at .500, their time to overtake (let alone create separation with) the Rose-less Bulls could be dwindling. The star point guard is reportedly a matter of "weeks away" from a return to the practice floor (according to what an NBA source told Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times).
Then again, this Bulls team has played pretty well without Rose. And they've got their big man in the middle to thank for that.