By Mike McGraw
Following a Christmas Eve practice at the Berto Center, Joakim Noah admitted there are times when he really misses former teammate Omer Asik.
"I don't talk to him that much," Noah said. "But sometimes I see the backgammon set that's still on the plane. We used to play backgammon together a lot.
"Nobody else (on the team) knows how to play backgammon. Sometimes I get bored on the plane, I think about Omer. Kind of corny, but …"
Apparently, teaching someone else how to play backgammon isn't an option.
"I don't have time for all that," Noah said with a smile.
Rather than backgammon, Noah and Asik will compete at basketball Tuesday, as the Bulls host the Houston Rockets in the team's first Christmas home game since 1997.
Asik, a Bulls' second-round draft pick in 2008, was a vital member of the "Bench Mob" during the past two seasons. He signed a three-year, $25 million offer sheet with the Rockets this summer, which the Bulls did not match.
Last year for the Bulls, Asik averaged 3.1 points and 5.3 rebounds in 14.7 minutes per game. His contributions have soared in Houston playing 30.7 minutes per game.
He ranks fourth in the NBA in rebounds at 11.4, is averaging 10.6 points and even has his free-throw percentage up to a more respectable .598.
"It was obvious to me that he was going to play well, just with more time," Noah said. "We felt like he wasn't getting a lot of playing time when he was here.
"But when he was on the court, he was definitely somebody who affected the game. I wish him nothing but the best, but hopefully he plays like (crud) tomorrow."
The Bulls already had an Asik reunion Nov. 21 in Houston. Noah won the battle that night with 11 points, 7 rebounds and 4 blocks compared to 4, 6 and 3 for Asik.
But the Rockets won the game 93-89. The Bulls led 84-79 with less than four minutes remaining but missed 12 straight shots during some poor offensive possessions. Toney Douglas canned a 3-pointer to send Houston ahead with 1:10 left, and the Bulls couldn't respond in time.
"They're playing great," coach Tom Thibodeau said of the Rockets. "They're No. 1 in the league in scoring (actually second behind Oklahoma City), No. 1 in fastbreak points.
"They're playing with a lot of confidence right now. You let your guard down for a second, they can put big points up on you."
Houston's top offensive weapon is former Thunder guard James Harden, but the Rockets also have some rapidly improving young players, such as small forward Chandler Parsons and power forward Patrick Patterson.
Asik, a native of Turkey, is no longer pretending he doesn't speak English when encountering reporters in Houston. The Bulls always seemed to enjoy having him as a teammate.
"I love the fact that he was a hard worker," Noah said. "He was always in here working hard. Great attitude, positive guy, somebody who sacrificed a lot for the team.
"He obviously wanted to play more and have a bigger role. That's probably one of the reasons he left, but he was one of the reasons why we were so successful. Good dude."