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February 22, 2011
On the Beat
Noah Close to Return

by John Perrotto


Even in their wildest dreams, the Chicago Bulls couldn't have expected this. They come out of the All-Star break with a 38-16 record, which gives them a whopping 14-game lead over the Pacers in the Central Division and puts them just two games off the pace of the Eastern Conference-leading Celtics.

Things should only get better for the Bulls. When they return to action Wednesday night against the Raptors at Toronto, center Joakim Noah is expected to play after missing 2.5 months with a torn thumb ligament.

However, coach Tom Thibodeau also understands some adjustments will need to be made by the Bulls with their big man coming back.

"Jo's done an unbelievable job getting ready and doing everything humanly possible to give himself the best chance to get back as quickly as possible," Thibodeau said. "The challenge for us is when he comes back, to get everyone on the same page and comfortable playing together again."

Noah should be in good shape, as he was able to do all his conditioning work while he injured. He also spent time working on his left-handed hook shot while his right hand in a cast.

Noah should also enable Chicago to play at a faster pace as 38-year-old Kurt Thomas started every game in his absence.

"Fast breaks are going to be up," guard Derrick Rose. "We're not a fast-break team right now because Kurt is kind of old. We've got to walk the ball up some. When Jo comes back, he's going to speed the game up and give us a lot of energy out there."

Playing faster should only benefit Rose, who Thibodeau believes should be a top candidate for NBA MVP.

"Derrick's done a good enough job by his play," Rose said. "I think anyone who's watched and seen the things he's done from the start of the season until now, I can't imagine anyone doing more."

Battle for Home-Court Advantage in the East

The Atlanta Hawks lost three of their last four games going into the All-Star break to fall into fifth place in the Eastern Conference, one game behind the Orlando Magic.

"We've got a lot of work to do, a lot of things we need to clean up and we will do that," coach Larry Drew said. "This league can do that to you when you don't stick to what you know and what works for you. And in some respects, we've strayed away from our plan here lately."

Meanwhile, the Magic wants to build on winning four of its last five games.

"It's time for us to really start picking it up," guard Jameer Nelson. "When you come out of the break, you want to start building momentum."

Orlando is 5.5 games behind the Celtics and Heat, making the team's chances of finishing first in the Eastern Conference slim. However, finishing third is realistic as the Magic trails by the Bulls by 3.5 games.

"Our goal is the same, to win an NBA championship," center Dwight Howard said.

New Orleans Tries to Stop Slide

The New Orleans Hornets have to be considered one of the surprise teams of the season. However, they are slipping in the Western Conference. Seven losses in their last eight games have dropped the Hornets to sixth place and just 1.5 games in front of the ninth-place Grizzles.

Defense had been the Hornets' strength for much of the season. However, they have allowed 100 or more points in eight of their last 11 games.

"We're just not playing well," forward David West said. "We're not scaring anybody. Defensively, we're non-existent. We can't guard the ball. We can't guard the ball screen. Every defensive situation gives us problems. That shouldn't be. Right now we just can't play at a high enough level to be consistent and win games consistently."

Coach Monty Williams is considering shaking up the lineup to get his team out of the doldrums.

"If guys want to keep their jobs, they're going to have to learn how to play in tough times like this," Williams said.

Meanwhile, a six-game winning streak has propelled the Portland Trail Blazers past the Hornets and into fifth place. It is the Trail Blazers' longest streak since November 2009.

"We're in a great mindset, a great place," forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. "Guys are playing great. We have a lot of momentum on our side right now."

Furthermore, center Marcus Camby and guard Brandon Roy, both sidelined by knee injuries, are expected to play Wednesday night when Portland hosts the Los Angeles Lakers.

"Feels good to be part of a team that's really clicking," guard Wesley Matthews said. "We're molding, we're building, we're getting tougher, we're getting stronger, and we're winning games."

Thunder Moving Up Standings

The Oklahoma City Thunder got into the playoffs last season as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference and nearly upset the eventual champion Lakers in the first round. This season, the Thunder has set up a potentially much better postseason situation.

Oklahoma City holds a four-game lead over the Trail Blazers in the Northwest Division and is in fourth place in the Western Conference. Thus, there is a good chance the Thunder will have home-court advantage in the first round.

"We have time to look back on what we've done the first 54 games and go into the last 28 games with a fresh mind and body feeling good and the spirit of the team will be in a good state," coach Scott Brooks said. "But we look forward to finishing up the season strong."

Oklahoma City's first game coming out of the break Tuesday should be interesting. The Thunder hosts the Clippers and Blake Griffin in what will be Griffin's first professional game in his hometown.

John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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