Plan is Feb. 23, but could Noah return to face Spurs?
Joakim Noah certainly seemed ready to get into a game when he recruited Omer Asik and Brian Scalabrine for a series of semi-violent battles in the low post.
Asik blocked Noah's shot on the first couple of reps, but the injured Bulls center seemed to find his rhythm against the smaller Scalabrine, who swore he didn't take it easy on his recovering teammate.
"When he beat me today, he beat me," Scalabrine said. "When he gets to that left hand, it's tough for me to stop."
Noah tore a ligament in his right thumb on Nov. 27 and has been out since having surgery Dec. 16. His return is drawing closer, though.
Coach Tom Thibodeau has consistently targeted a post all-star break return for Noah, most likely Feb. 23 at Toronto. Asked if he will lobby the Bulls to come back Thursday when they host San Antonio for the last game before the break, Noah paused for a few seconds, then chose his words carefully.
"We'll see how it feels," he said. "I'm just taking it day by day. I'm just trying to get better and improve."
The Bulls tend to play it cautious with injuries, but an early return may not be out of the question. He wore a plastic splint on his right thumb Monday, with a minor tape job.
"I have no pain, but it's still weak and stiff," Noah said. "(My conditioning) is not great yet, but trying to get my legs under me. I'm not really used to contact and things like that. Omer busted by (butt) today and so did Scal. I have my work cut out."
According to Thibodeau, Noah was able to do everything at Monday's practice, the Bulls' first at the Berto Center after 11 days on the road, although the team did not scrimmage full court.
So that remains Noah's final hurdle.
"He's not quite there, but we're very pleased with where he's at," Thibodeau said. "He's done a great job with his rehab; he's not having any problems. Tomorrow, hopefully he'll get an opportunity to go up and down and he'll be ready to go. We're planning on right after the break."
The Bulls have been one of the league's most surprising stories, posting a 36-16 record while Noah (28 games) and Carlos Boozer (18) have missed significant time because of injuries.
The question waiting to be answered is what they'll look like when finally at full strength. Noah and Boozer have been in the lineup together for just nine games all season.
When Boozer first returned from a broken right hand Dec. 1, the Bulls struggled in losses to Orlando and Boston, then won seven in a row, including victories over Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Then again Noah wasn't exactly healthy during that stretch, since he was playing with the torn ligament in his thumb, something most athletes find impossible.
"I'm just going out there and giving everything I've got to make this team better," Noah said. "I don't know. We'll have to see what happens. We haven't played as a healthy group all year yet. It's going to be exciting to see where we can take this."
On that subject, Thibodeau stuck to his season-long theme, which is basically to look no further than the next game.
"We don't want to get ahead of ourselves," he said. "I think the fact that he's practicing helps us quite a bit. Also, the things he does makes the transition easy, too. He's a defense-first guy, rebounding guy, great-passing guy, great scheme guy. So he makes the game easier.
"Him coming back by itself doesn't necessarily make us better. It's going to be the commitment to improve by everybody, and hopefully we can do that."