MINNEAPOLIS -- Hours before Joakim Noah racked up his fourth triple-double of the season in a solid win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, the All-Star center followed the same routine he has had all season:
He spent extra time working on his game after shootaround ended as Bulls assistant coach Ed Pinckney patiently fed the big man the ball over and over.
Jump shots, free throws, post moves; they're all part of the work that has come to define Noah's most impressive season to date. He takes pride in the extra hours he has poured into his game.
For the first time in several years, he's headed into a postseason without any lingering injuries that are gnawing at him. The extra work wasn't possible the past few years because his feet were riddled with plantar fasciitis and he tried to stay off them as much as possible.
Now, Noah strides confidently around an empty Target Center with a big grin on his face.
This is his team now without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng in the fold. As much as the emotional center shies away from any individual accolades, he knows that part is true. He knows he is the straw that stirs the drink in Chicago and he is hell-bent on continuing to prove wrong anyone who doubted him.
"I'm very proud," Noah said, reflecting on this season. "I'm very proud of this team. And just to be in this position right now, feeling like we can compete against anybody, it's a great feeling. We know that the playoffs are coming up, but we're playing for seeding right now and see where that takes us. And then at the end of the week, we'll find out who our matchup is, take it from there.
"It's going to be exciting."
He's not done.
"A lot of people are talking about the East as being weak and all that. It's not true," Noah said. "The East has really stepped up their game this year. Throughout the year I think the East has gotten better. It's an exciting time of year, man. Spring is in the air, I'm tired of freezing my ass [off]. It's the best time of year for me."
As has become his custom, Noah backed up his talk yet again Wednesday night, racking up 15 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. More than ever, Noah is trusting himself on the floor, trusting his instincts night after night.
While his eye-popping performances may continue to surprise some around the league, his teammates and coaches have come to expect those kinds of numbers each night.
"The usual," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said of Noah's performance. "Energy, toughness, heart."
"When we were lackadaisical on offense after being off three days, he's the one that got us sparked. Him and D.J. [Augustin]. He just kind of brought the energy."
It's that energy Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau loves most about his star center. It's that energy that makes the Bulls go. It's that energy that has pushed Noah -- and Thibodeau -- to new heights in each other's careers.
The veteran coach isn't surprised Noah's all-around game has improved.
"Because it's who he is," Thibodeau said.
"I can speak on the four years that I've been with him: He's gotten better every year. I talked to [University of Florida coach] Billy Donovan this summer quite a bit, and we talked about [Noah's] career in college, and he basically did the same thing."
Now Noah is just doing it on a much bigger stage. He's become a safe bet to earn first-team All-NBA honors this season -- something that seemed unthinkable just a few short years ago.
"For Jo, it's hard to measure all that he does for your team," Thibodeau said. "When you see him make three, or four, or five efforts on the same play -- is there a stat for that? No. When he swings the ball quickly to somebody where he doesn't get the assist -- where there's a trap, a kickout, and then another swing -- there's not a stat for that. But all those things lead to winning."
Indeed, Noah has become one of the best players in a league full of great ones -- and he knows it.
"I feel real comfortable," he said. "Making plays for my teammates, being aggressive when I have to. Just taking it day by day. Just trying to get better in every aspect of my game. All this stuff is just giving me more confidence, and I just want more."