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Bulls Wed Apr 06 2011

Boozer and Noah Get Back to Business

bulls group.jpg

Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer played together last night for the 24th time / Tribune photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo

After resting a sprained ankle the past three games, Joakim Noah returned last night to help the Bulls earn a 97-94 victory against the Phoenix Suns. The 6-11 center played just over 28 minutes, looking healthy and quite able-bodied with several fast break baskets off Phoenix turnovers. He finished with 12 points, same as Carlos Boozer, while Derrick Rose led Chicago with 19 points. Luol Deng wasn't far behind with 18 of his own.

With Boston and Miami winning, the victory keeps Chicago three games ahead of them for first place in the Eastern Conference, with five games left -- including Thursday's marquee matchup with the Celtics at the United Center.

Boozer and Noah have played 24 games together this season because of injuries -- less than one-third of the team's 77 games. But is a lack of chemistry truly affecting their performance? Or is each player's perceived drop in points when they both play simply a result of them sharing the wealth?

On the year, Boozer is averaging 17.9 points per game, while Noah is just over 12. Noah scored a lot early when Boozer was on the bench. With November games like a 26-point effort against Boston and a 21-point game against Washington, Chicago fans could be excused for wondering if they even needed the new free-agent addition.

Then, of course, when Boozer played his first games in early December, Noah's numbers dropped a bit, falling down into his 10-15 point average. Here are their points during shared games of that month:

12/1 vs. Orlando -- Boozer 5, Noah 16
12/3 vs. Boston -- Boozer 12, Noah 14
12/4 vs. Houston -- Boozer 25, Noah 13
12/6 vs. Oklahoma City -- Boozer 29, Noah 6
12/8 vs. Cleveland -- Boozer 4, Noah 13
12/10 vs. L.A. Lakers -- Boozer 10, Noah 9
12/11 vs. Minnesota -- Boozer 17, Noah 9
12/13 vs. Indianapolis -- Boozer 22, Noah 12
12/15 vs. Toronto -- Boozer 34, Noah 11

A small sample size, sure, but it's clear that with Boozer starting to play, Noah's numbers fell back down to Earth. But comparing them to his average this year, they're right in line with the 10-15 pace he's been getting when he plays. More important, however, Boozer is often putting in not just what used to be Noah's points, but 10 or 12 additional, for 22-plus points in four of those nine games.

February saw much of the same ratio albeit in a tighter window, as the pair played together only four times that month. But with Noah just getting back into fitness and rhythm more than two months since his last game, he scored only 7, 7 and 8 points in his first three games back.

March has been the biggest window to look at the pair, and with both of them at full strength for significant stretches, there is an interesting wrinkle in Boozer's stats. Over 11 games last month, Carlos scored above his 17.9 average only twice: 19 points against New Orleans on the 7th, and 24 against Minnesota on the 30th (a game that Noah missed because of the sprained ankle). Noah, however, met or exceeded his average six of the 10 games the two played together, and split the four games he played without Boozer, with zero and five points on the 11th and 17th and 16 and 17 on the 12th and 18th, respectively. Was Noah poaching points in the paint that used to go to Boozer? Or did the former Duke Blue Devil just have an off month?

For what it's worth, coach Tom Thibodeau doesn't buy into the criticism, stating that the idea is "a myth. When you study the statistics, it's very similar. There's not much of a difference. I don't think that's been an issue. Jo and Carlos complement each other very well."

I have to agree with him. While it's certainly true that March was a low-scoring month for Boozer, well below the expectations placed on him when he came here in the summer, Noah's numbers didn't get much higher. If anyone is poaching points lately, it's more likely Derrick Rose or Kyle Korver, both players who hit their stride last month. Rose scored 20-plus for all but two games he played in, reaching a career-high of 42 at one point as well. Korver hit 20, 18 and 17 during three games in March, well above his season average of 8.3.

No one can deny that chemistry is an important part of any team. But both Boozer and Noah have such high basketball IQ, it's not like anyone is seriously worried about them getting in each other's way under the basket. And while their individual point totals might drop a little bit when they play together, their combined total is still often far higher than their individual averages. So relax, Bulls fans, and take a cue from the MVP candidate himself when he ignores the individual stats and focuses on the good of the team. It's still far better for the two of them to be out there having an average game than for either one alone to be having a great night, and when the physical play of the postseason arrives, it'll be nice to have some company under the rim.

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