- Melissa Isaacson, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- A year ago at this time, Joakim Noah had missed 30 of the Chicago Bulls' first 54 games of the season with a thumb injury serious enough to require surgery. He had played just nine games with new frontcourt teammate Carlos Boozer. And the Bulls were a team that had not yet come to grips with its potential.
In February 2011, the MVP chants were just starting up at the United Center. And Derrick Rose, fresh off a fiery pregame pep talk by coach Tom Thibodeau to be more aggressive and allow his teammates to follow, took the microphone before that night's game against the league-leading San Antonio Spurs and thanked fans for helping give Chicago its first All-Star Game starter since Michael Jordan in 1998.
Rose scored a career-high 42 points in the team's 10-point victory, Noah returned to the lineup in the first game after the break and the Bulls went on to their finest season since the Jordan era ended.
Wednesday night, at the "midpoint" of a season too quirky to accurately forecast, last year looked almost modest by comparison.
A healthy Noah scored the first triple-double for a Bulls center in 35 years in the team's 110-91 victory over Milwaukee. Boozer led the Bulls in scoring with 20. And Rose's aggressiveness, debated for different reasons these days, will carry him into All-Star weekend with teammate Luol Deng and coached by Thibodeau and his staff.
Despite the compressed schedule and the accompanying bumps and bruises, the Bulls (27-8) are four games ahead of the pace set last year after 35 contests, and playing at a comfort level that makes 2011 seem very long ago indeed.
Boozer's first three baskets Wednesday night came off Noah assists. And as Noah and his teammates dressed for a get-together in celebration of his 27th birthday, he reflected on how far they have come.
"Feeling real comfortable," Noah said of his on-court rapport with Boozer.
"Last year at this time was probably the most difficult time of my career, just not being able to play. As a player, that's always the hardest thing ... I wasn't able to travel with the team so I felt a little bit out of it. But it feels good to be back. I feel healthy and I feel good."
And yet it is still difficult to get an accurate feel for things this skewed season, a fact Thibodeau has acknowledged in advancing the notion that good teams are probably looking better than they really are, and poor teams worse.
With the anticipated return after the break of guard Richard Hamilton, who has played just 11 games this season, the Bulls should only improve.
The team is deeper, stronger and actually healthier than it was last February. While Bulls fans have hoped at times for even more change via trade, it is the team's stability that is its greatest asset.
It is also more experienced, wiser, short of practice time like every other team in the league but no longer in need of fiery pep talks.
"I would say yeah, we find ways to win," Rose answered after a thoughtful pause when asked if this team is better than last season's. "Last year it was just new to everyone. This year I think we're more comfortable with how Thibs wants us to play, just knowing he wants us to go out there and play hard and play together all the time and with a lot of energy. And this year I think we do that the majority of the time."
Noah credited Wednesday's big game with the fact that all the focus was on Rose, who in his second game back after a five-game absence due to back pain, scored 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting with seven assists.
"The only reason I was able to do it was they were trying to get the ball out of Derrick's hands," said Noah, who finished with 13 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. "So when they put two on Derrick, I'm just making plays off of that. It's really because of him I'm able to make plays. I'm not creating off the dribble or anything like that."
Rose responded that Noah is playing with more confidence than ever.
"He's driving the team right now," Rose said.
Are the Bulls better? Absolutely. Just how good, however, is a question that will have to wait to be answered, dependent on endurance as well as luck, the quirkiness of fate.
Maturity, however, is plentiful.
"All I know," said Noah, "is with what we have this year, I don't feel we've peaked yet, and we have to take it up another notch if we want to be a championship-caliber team."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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