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updated: 11/15/2010 11:38 AM

Trip looms for Bulls, but Boozer's return will be bigger event

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As the trapezes are hung from the United Center ceiling, here are a few things we've learned in the opening weeks of the NBA season:

Boston is very capable of beating Miami's Soft Beach lineup, the Western Conference remains as dominant as ever, and Chris Paul hasn't given up on a future in New Orleans.

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The Bulls, meanwhile, are the Eastern Conference mystery team.

By beating Washington 103-96 on Saturday, the Bulls built a 5-3 record, their best mark at the start of the annual circus road trip since 1996, when they were 10-0. Some of their positives are obvious in the early-season stats:

• Derrick Rose (23.6 points, 9.5 assists) and Joakim Noah (16.5 points, 13.3 assists) have both stepped up their games since last year.

• Taj Gibson (14.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 60.2 field-goal percentage) has posted better numbers than Miami's Chris Bosh (14.5, 6.0, .482), which is certainly unexpected.

• Luol Deng (20.3 points) has essentially matched the scoring power of Atlanta's Joe Johnson (20.2).

• The play of the Bulls' bench has been wobbly so far. But compared to one of the summer's free-agent targets, Orlando's J.J. Redick (4.4 points, .271 FG percentage in 18.7 minutes), Kyle Korver has been brilliant, averaging 8.1 points and shooting an even 50 percent in 19 minutes per game.

• Overall, the Bulls seem to believe in new coach Tom Thibodeau. They've added some steady veteran personalities in the locker room, such as shooting guard Keith Bogans, who will be tougher than expected to remove from the starting lineup.

The Bulls are a mystery, though, because no one has seen what they'll be like with Carlos Boozer in the lineup, not even in preseason. He's been spending his time recovering from a broken right hand.

Will Boozer and Noah create the sort of dominating inside presence that is bound to give Miami problems? Will moving Gibson to the bench make things easier on the second unit?

Most every day, Thibodeau talks about how important it is for the Bulls to play at a fast pace. Will Boozer help or hinder that goal? How will he affect the defense, which has been shaky at times?

Boozer's goal is to begin shooting the ball on Tuesday in Houston, the first stop on the seven-game road trip, then start practicing a week later. At this point, the best-case scenario for seeing Boozer in a uniform appears to be Dec. 1.

If that is when he comes back, Boozer's first two games would be against Orlando and Boston, which would be a nice welcoming party.

The NBA world has been craving a team capable of beating Miami. Boston has done it twice, along with a couple of Western Conference teams (New Orleans and Utah).

Orlando has been oddly ineffective, with a home loss to Toronto and 1-point win at New Jersey this weekend. After starting 6-0 against a weak schedule, Atlanta dropped its next four. Milwaukee started 1-5, but is showing signs of life.

Where do the Bulls belong? At the top of the pack with Boston, with the questionable pack of contenders, or below?

The circus trip will test the Bulls, but the answers won't arrive until Boozer finally joins the lineup.

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