While the NBA world focused on Carmelo Anthony moving to New York, the Bulls returned to the Berto Center on Tuesday for their first practice after the all-star break.
Anthony and the Knicks could be a concern in a couple of months. If the playoffs started today, the Bulls and New York would be first-round opponents.
New York gave up three starters to bring in Anthony. So as far as the Bulls are concerned, they'll have the NBA's most significant trade-deadline addition when center Joakim Noah returns from 30 games off with a torn ligament in his right thumb. Coach Tom Thibodeau said Noah will start Wednesday night at Toronto.
Don't forget how valuable he is. Noah averaged 15.6 points and 13.2 rebounds during the first 15 game of the season, before the injury occurred Nov. 27 in Sacramento.
"It's been awhile," Noah said. "I'm just excited to play basketball again. My thumb feels a lot better."
The timing for Noah's return couldn't be better. The next seven games could determine if the Bulls have a chance to surpass Miami and Boston for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
On Thursday, they'll host the Heat at the United Center with a chance to clinch the season series. Then the Bulls depart for another five-game road trip that finishes with games in Atlanta, Orlando and Miami. With all that at stake, Carmelo can wait.
"I think the good teams right now, they make a hard push and they continue to improve," Thibodeau said. "So it doesn't get easier for us. The challenge for us is to do all the things that put us in this position. We know it starts with our defense."
The Bulls (38-16) haven't been completely healthy for even one game this season. Carlos Boozer missed the first month with a broken bone in his right hand.
Boozer and Noah played nine games together in early December, but Noah was playing with the torn ligament the entire time. He still managed to average 11.4 points and 9.2 boards while injured.
The Bulls can only hope Boozer's health doesn't become an issue again. The burly power forward didn't get beyond 17 points or 9 rebounds in any of the last four games before the break.
"There are no excuses now," said all-star guard Derrick Rose. "We've got the team back. Everyone should go out there and play hard. It should be fun out there."
Rose is looking forward to getting out on the fastbreak more often with Noah back in the lineup, though he did admit a faster tempo will be difficult.
"It's going to be tough on all of us, pushing the ball up the court again," Rose said. "We were a team where sometimes we would walk the ball up the court. Now all of us have to get back into game shape. Those fastbreaks get you tired, especially running like that the whole game."
Noah hasn't played since Dec. 15, which happened to be the first time the Bulls played at Toronto this season. He has had a couple of full practices and isn't worried about getting hit on the thumb.
Asked what he noticed from the bench during those 30 games he sat out, Noah answered, "I just learned that we're a pretty good team and we can do something special if we put our hearts into it."