Joakim Noah to start in return

DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah, who missed 30 games after thumb surgery, will start against the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday.

"Very excited, very excited," Noah said. "It's been awhile. I'm just excited to play basketball again."

Noah said his thumb feels "a lot better," and although there wasn't much contact in practice, he's not concerned how it will hold up.

"It's good to have him back with the team," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "It's another quality big up front. But we can't lose sight of how we got here. I think the important thing for us is to play really hard, play defense. Because he's back doesn't mean it's easier. It's still, it's hard. And we have to make sure we maintain our edge."

The Bulls have gone 22-8 since Noah's last game on Dec. 15. At 38-16, the Bulls have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference and are within striking distance of Boston and Miami.

"I think it's more than just making the playoffs now," Noah said. "There's definitely a bigger picture, and we're excited to see where we stand."

That picture certainly includes a spot for Noah. The Bulls will have to make some adjustments, though.

"It's always hard working somebody into the lineup, especially when they've been out for a long time," Derrick Rose said. "You get used to not playing with them. So we'll have to see tomorrow."

The Bulls won 15 of 19 before the All-Star break, beating the Celtics to start the run and taking out San Antonio last week, and they'll get a big test when they host the Heat on Thursday.

They traded former first-round pick James Johnson to Toronto for a first-rounder the Raptors acquired in the Chris Bosh sign-and-trade. That pick could be used in another deal for a player like, say, Courtney Lee, Anthony Parker or Rasual Butler.

Either way, they're in a good spot.

Noah could provide a spark and set off a few more fastbreaks with his rebounding, shot-blocking and ability to run the floor. He also plays an important part on offense with his passing and pick-and-roll ability even though he's not a great shooter.

Noah was averaging 14 points and 11.7 rebounds before his surgery to repair torn ligaments in his right thumb and hand. He has been working on his conditioning and shooting, and scrimmaging with a teammate after practice.

"There's nothing that you can do in practice that can actually simulate the intensity of a game," Thibodeau said. "We'll see how he responds once he's out there."

Thibodeau said the Bulls will try to work Noah back as quickly as possible.

"I don't know how he's going to respond out there. We'll see how he is," Thibodeau said. "And, obviously, we're going to try and get him up to starter's minutes as quickly as possible. It will be similar to what Carlos [Boozer] went through each game, a little bit more. And I think once they start playing it will come around pretty quickly."

Noah will replace Kurt Thomas in the starting lineup. Thomas, a 15-year veteran, has averaged 4.7 points and 5.9 rebounds and 24 minutes in Noah's place.

"I think most of [Noah's] strengths are team strengths: His team defense, his energy, his rebounding, his shot-blocking, his passing," Thibodeau said. "I think when you add those things, it helps your team in a lot of ways. And any time you can add a quality passer I think that it makes it that much harder to be guarded.

"I think he'll help us in all areas. I think the fact that it gives you another quality big, you can be even more aggressive with your defense ... I thought the big thing was at the start of the year we played with a quicker tempo, and a lot of that is his ability to rebound the ball and get out and run and beat teams down the floor."

Noah is simply ready to get back on the court.

"I think I always play with passion and fire," he said. "I'm ready. It's been a lot of waiting. I've been trying to be as patient as possible, but I'm really happy that it's finally here."

Nick Friedell covers the Bulls for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.