About 90 seconds into the final quarter at the TD Garden, when the Celtics had slashed a 20-point deficit down to four, coach Tom Thibodeau looked to his bench and summoned two players we haven’t seen much of in fourth quarters this season, starters Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer.
Welcome back to crunch time, fellas.
Noah and Boozer played as if they had been waiting for this opportunity, as odd as it might sound because most teams go with their starting five down the stretch. Maybe the day off had them refreshed. Maybe they were tired of facing questions about why they weren’t playing late in games.
Whatever the reason, they each had a key role in the Bulls’ 88-79 win over Boston that left them with the league’s best mark (11-2) and still their best start in 15 years. About a sixth of the way through this lockout-shortened season and the Bulls have had their projected starting lineup, which includes Rip Hamilton, for only five games. Backup point guard C.J. Watson has missed the last eight games as he recovers from an elbow injury, and even Rose has missed a game due to an ankle injury.
Boozer and Noah, meanwhile, have been either in foul trouble or inconsistent – and yet the Bulls continue to string together quality wins. Now that’s not to excuse their so-so play, but it does show how much depth the Bulls have, which has been the main explanation Thibodeau has given the media whenever Noah and Boozer are saddled on the bench during fourth quarters.
Neither Noah nor Boozer had played in the previous two fourth quarters, and Chicago eventually pulled away late to win both of those games. Noah was averaging seven fewer minutes and Boozer nearly four fewer minutes a game this season heading into Friday’s game. It’s strange because they haven’t left a glaring void in the frontcourt, thanks to the steadily improving youngsters Taj Gibson and Omer Asik.
Hours before the Celtics game, Thibodeau again explained how he has to do what’s best for the team, how he still has confidence in his starting front courtand how he has no plans of switching up the starting five.
If you’re the type of fan that lives and dies with each game, then the way Noah and Boozer played against Boston probably had you all giddy. It was close to what you’d expect to get from two players who are making nearly $140 million combined in salary.
Noah was a presence in the paint, blocking three shots, altering others and being his scrappy old self on the offensive end. Boozer was selfless on the offensive end in a way that didn’t hurt the team. He had a nice hustle play that resulted in a long jumper for Ronnie Brewer and had a heady assist – one of his three in the quarter – by passing out of a double-team to Rose for a trey.
When Noah’s on his game, he’s going to stand out on the defensive end. When Boozer is clicking, he’ll have a broad stat line. In other words, when they’re active, engaged and not in foul trouble, they fit in and make the Bulls that much better.
Now if you’re more of a big-picture fan, then you’ll nod your head in affirmation at Noah and Boozer’s performance but still have some reservations. It’s not questioning their talent but whether they can have this type of night on a consistent basis – starting Saturday night against Toronto.
So I’m not willing to just say, “problem solved” on the whole Noah-Boozer fourth quarter quandary. This was just one game, albeit a very good one. But there’s no way Bulls fans will feel comfortable about this until Noah and Boozer give Thibodeau no choice but to play them a bulk of the fourth quarter.
Chris Silva, former Pistons beat writer for the Detroit Free Press and Kevin Durant’s de facto biographer for thunder.nba.com, covers the Chicago Bulls and the NBA for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter at @silvawriter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.