- Nick Friedell, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- Joakim Noah is in the middle of the best stretch he's had in his career, according to Tom Thibodeau. The veteran coach made that proclamation after Monday's shootaround as Noah got some extra work in with assistant coaches. Noah, who is aiming for his second straight All-Star appearance, is averaging 11.7 points, 11 rebounds and 1.3 blocks a game.
"I think it is his best stretch," Thibodeau said. "In all aspects. A few years ago, in 2010, he started off like this, similar. Then he got hurt, that's when he tore the ligament in his thumb. But right now he's playing so well on both sides of the ball -- and we need it. So he's done a great job."
More importantly for the Bulls, Noah has taken an even bigger leadership role in recent weeks. Noah has always been an emotional presence in the Bulls' locker room, but he has developed more in that role after Derrick Rose went down again because of season-ending knee surgery and Luol Deng was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"Look at him," Bulls guard Jimmy Butler said. "He's out there working, that's what he does. It's so easy to go out there and work whenever you have a leader like that that's constantly trying to make his game better in every aspect of it. So as long as he keeps leading us and he keeps working like that -- myself, the young guys, we're going to follow in his footsteps."
Butler sorry to miss Kobe: After a win over the Los Angeles Lakers a year ago, Butler's teammates happily screamed 'Kobe Stopper' to Butler after the Marquette alum held the former MVP to just 7-for-22 from the field. With Bryant out again because of a knee injury, Butler admitted he would rather get the chance to face the future Hall-of-Famer again.
"I would," he said. "Growing up you watch Kobe and he's one of the greatest to ever play this game. I always wanted to go up against those guys because that was my dream, to go up against them, play against them. Maybe play on the same team as them. So it's just tough to see a great player like that injured."
As for Butler's shot, he hopes that comes around soon. He is 12-for-37 over his last three games.
"I can't make a shot right now," Butler said. "Outside the arc, inside the arc, inside the paint, I don't know. But the only way to make shots is to keep taking them. So steady being aggressive."