CHICAGO -- Joakim Noah had already racked up a triple-double on Tuesday night, but that was nothing compared to the pressure he faced with 38.5 seconds left and a victory already well in hand.
That's because the Chicago Bulls were hanging on the precipice of something their fans want more than a win on most nights: a free Big Mac. With the Bulls comfortably leading the Atlanta Hawks 98-85, just two points away from the magical mark, Noah knocked down both free throws to cap off a special night.
After the second one went down, the fans erupted and Noah unleashed a fist pump that capped another great performance in the middle of the best stretch of his career.
"Those were tough free throws, man," a relieved Noah said after the game. "I could feel [the pressure]. I could definitely feel it."
As has become the norm over the past few weeks, Noah rose above the pressure and produced.
He set the tone early Tuesday, almost finishing off a triple-double in the first half, and continued his habit of dominating the game on both ends.
He is setting the example that his teammates follow on a daily basis. He has become the most consistent player on the floor for the Bulls night after night.
"I think the big thing is he's healthy," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "He's gotten into a rhythm. I think missing training camp set him back offensively. Defensively, he's been terrific all year.
"Offensively, the last 25 games or so, he's been in a great rhythm. He's doing a lot of great things for us. Making plays. He's comfortable on the perimeter. He's comfortable in the post, dribble handoff, pick-and-roll. The ability to make a quick decision, read what the defense is doing, where's the help coming from? He's running the floor.
"He's playing great basketball right now. He and Taj [Gibson] have been terrific up front."
It seems as though the better Noah plays, the better Gibson plays. They have developed a dynamic tandem that has set the foundation for most of what Thibodeau wants to do on a nightly basis.
Gibson, the man who led all scorers Tuesday with 24 points, acknowledges this may be the best stretch of his career, as well, especially down on the blocks.
"I came a long way," Gibson said. "It's tough. When you come from college to the NBA, guys are real physical. I added weight to my body. I worked on my post game. My jump shot. Just things that you need to work on in the NBA. But the main thing is confidence.
"You can work out 100 hours a day, but without confidence it's nothing. I have a good group of guys that believe in me. I've got a great coach that believed in me all summer, and I'm just taking it in stride."
Thibodeau is trying to take the pair's run in stride, too. He understands that Gibson's all-around game gives the Bulls the best option to win right now -- with or without Carlos Boozer on the floor. Boozer missed his third straight game on Tuesday because of a strained left calf.
"It's given us balance," Thibodeau said of Gibson's presence. "Because it's a guy you can throw the ball into. So you're not staying strictly on the perimeter. Then we're getting good dribble penetration off the pick-and-roll. And Joakim's making a lot of great plays, quick decisions, so it's been good. Taj has been very, very good."
But not quite as good as Noah. The emotional center is enjoying the impact he's having on his team this season and is very appreciative of the fact that, for the first time in several years, he isn't dealing with any lingering injuries.
"I feel healthy," he said. "Last year around this time, I was in a lot of pain. My feet were hurting. I felt like my body was breaking down.
"I'm healthy right now," he added. "I couldn't be happier about that."