- Nick Friedell, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- Carlos Boozer may not be consistent on the floor, but he is automatic when it comes to answering one key question: What is it going to take for Boozer and Joakim Noah to start playing well together on the floor?
"I'm not worried about that," Boozer said after Tuesday night's thrilling 76-74 win over the Atlanta Hawks.
Boozer and Noah combined to play just 4 seconds in the fourth quarter with all four coming from Noah, who threw the game-winning pass to Luol Deng with 3.7 seconds left.
"We're worried about winning," Boozer said. "I think we've been playing great this season on the floor together. And we're going to continue to play great."
Actually Boozer and Noah haven't played great this season together. They haven't even been very good. For the second time in just over a week, the pair was benched late in a game as the Bulls tried to dig themselves out of a self-created hole. Yet again, a combined $140 million worth of contracts sat along with 22,166 people at the United Center as the Bulls furiously scratched and clawed their way back.
It looked and felt a lot like Game 5 of last season's Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat in which the pair found themselves planted on the bench at the end of the game. The only difference, of course, is that the Bulls actually won this game. That shouldn't take away from the larger issue, though.
Boozer, Noah and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau can talk all they want about how the big men are going to figure things out, how the Bulls' record is still great with both on the floor and how Thibodeau was trying to get a smaller lineup out on the floor to try to find a spark.
But Noah and Boozer really haven't played well together since Boozer came back on the floor last season on Dec. 1. Before Noah injured his thumb, he looked like an All-Star. When Noah went out for two months and Boozer came back, it was Boozer who looked like an All-Star. When both play on the floor together though, they look like two puzzle pieces that just don't fit together no matter how hard Thibodeau tries to push them together.
Their spacing on the floor looks off, and they increasingly look frustrated at times together, especially on the defensive end. For his part, Noah admits that he has to pick up the slack.
"I think I need to rebound better," he said after the game. "And do better defensively. Play better defense."
As he answered the question, former teammate, and current Hawks guard Jannero Pargo barged into the Bulls locker room and started teasing Noah.
"Hi, I'm Joakim," Pargo said, in a voice reminiscent of Mork, from the 70's sitcom, 'Mork and Mindy,' "and I foul a lot."
It's the truth. Part of Noah's problem throughout the season is that he has picked up early fouls and hasn't been able to stay on the floor. It was the same on Tuesday as he had to sit most of the game because of foul trouble and managed just two points and four rebounds in 16 minutes. Boozer wasn't in foul trouble, Thibodeau just chose not to put him back in the game, although he admitted the thought crossed his mind.
"I did think about it," Thibodeau said. "There was a stretch where I was going to come back with the starters, but that group was making their run and there was a lot of ground to make up. And I felt at that point we couldn’t afford to have another lull. I just felt like they looked like they were fine, and it looked like we were picking up our energy."
That statement alone should be concerning to Bulls fans. They continue to find themselves in long lulls when Boozer and Noah are on the floor together. It's happened several times already this year, and happened a lot at the end of last season as well.
So what's the solution?
The problem for the Bulls is that there really isn't one at the moment. Boozer's contract is an albatross, and he isn't going anywhere. And while Noah certainly has trade value, the only player the Bulls would probably even think about dealing Noah for is Dwight Howard, and he just doesn't seem to want to play in Chicago at the moment. So the Bulls are in a bind. Do they stick either Noah or Boozer on the bench to start the game? Do they hope that one of the big men will find success with another group?
Noah and Boozer are useless to the team when they are sitting on the bench. Until the Bulls figure out how to get the most out of each, their dreams of advancing to the next step this season are in trouble.