Hobbling Noah key to Bulls' playoff success

Joakim Noah was scoreless in 14 minutes against the Wizards on Wednesday. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

CHICAGO -- In the grand scheme of this season, the only numbers in Wednesday night's box score that mean anything have nothing to do with the final score. The biggest numbers are those related to hobbled center Joakim Noah -- zero points, one rebound, one assist, one steal and two turnovers in 14 minutes and 21 seconds of action.

Noah summed up his performance succinctly late Wednesday night after the Bulls 95-92 win over the Washington Wizards: "I felt very rusty."

He looked it. After missing the better part of the past month because of ongoing problems with plantar fasciitis, Noah has looked like a shell of his All-Star self since returning Monday night in Orlando. Obviously, his presence gives the Bulls, who open their playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday, a huge lift. But if he can't somehow get some of the pain out of his aching foot, the Bulls' run in the postseason will be short-lived.

Even he isn't sure if he will be able to play at his usual high level throughout the playoffs because of the pain.

"Only time will tell," he said as he iced his foot in a big bucket in front of his locker. "But I'm going to give it everything I got. All I want is to go out there, give everything I got for the team and play at a high level."

Noah said he and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau haven't even discussed if he will enter the postseason on a minutes limit. For now, he's just focused on doing everything he can to make his foot feel better -- having already received a cortisone shot in it last week.

"Just doing all my treatments," he said. "When the game is over just keep my foot up, rest. It's a tough situation. It sucks to be not at 100 percent but I'm going to give everything I got every night for the team and it's what it's all about."

That's the attitude that makes Noah so endearing to teammates, coaches and fans. With all the ups and downs the Bulls have experienced this season, Thibodeau is just hoping to squeeze any energy that is left in Noah, whose presence will be key against Brooklyn center Brook Lopez. The same can be said for Taj Gibson, who returned from a knee injury to play the final two games of the regular season.

"It's a big plus," Thibodeau said of having the pair back. "I would prefer to have Joakim and Taj for 30-plus minutes. But having them back is a big plus for us. Whatever they can give us I feel confident they will get better as time goes on."

Noah's teammates know how crucial it is to have back in the lineup -- even in a limited amount.

"He's our All-Star this year," Gibson said. "He's the man in the paint, clogs it up, one of our strong ball-handlers, he's just one of the top players in the league and we really need him this year, especially going into the playoffs, so hopefully he gets back healthy. He's looking good right now. We just got to get him more familiar with the offense and running and knowing (what's going on)."

But that's the problem for Noah at this point. He is going to play hard but will he be in the type of rhythm he needs to succeed?

"When you're out so long it's like you're a step behind a little bit," Gibson said. "You just have to work your way through it. But when you don't have practice it's tough, and that's why I'm looking forward to the next couple days of practice so we can really get back into the swing of things and get our timing right because it's tough. In the NBA (the pace) is fast, the regular season is fast, but it picks up a whole other notch in the playoffs. It comes down to one or two possessions every game."

As Noah shuffled up and down the floor though, it was clear that he still doesn't feel like himself.

"I just got to take it slow and right now there is no time to take it slow," Noah said. "But these three days will be crucial to get as much treatment as possible and get ready for a tough series."