CHICAGO -- There hasn't been much consistency throughout this Chicago Bulls season.
Injuries have ravaged the rotation. When the offense sings, the defense sags -- and vice versa.
But through it all, one thing has remained constant -- the optimism from players and coaches that matters will improve.
It has sounded mostly hollow thus far. But perhaps the words will ring truer in 2014, which the Bulls kicked off with a 94-82 victory over the Celtics on Thursday night at the United Center.
And leading the way was the emotional epicenter of the Bulls, Joakim Noah, who backed his words with actions. Lots and lots of action.
Noah narrowly missed his fourth career triple-double -- his second came last season against these Celtics -- with 17 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. Primal screams aren't an official statistic, but Noah unleashed a few of those for good measure.
"We just have to keep grinding, a lot of basketball left," Noah said. "And if we just keep our minds into it, it could be a hell of a year."
Carlos Boozer contributed 16 points and Luol Deng added 14 in an extremely rare low-minute game for him. In just his second game back from missing 9 of 12 with a sore left Achilles, Deng played just 29 minutes while on a minutes restriction.
Deng said afterward he's improving and could play more next game.
Coach Tom Thibodeau said the Bulls ran offense late through Noah, as they often do, because of ball pressure. But there were times down the stretch they appeared to concentrate more on Noah's achievement than making the right play.
"It's not really good to play basketball that way where you're focusing on your stats," Noah said. "I tried to get it. Jimmy (Butler) forced the shot at the end. It's not a good look. But it was cool."
The Bulls did move the ball offensively, finishing with 26 assists on their 35 field goals.
Shortly after drawing a rare technical foul -- one of the Bulls' three along with Boozer and, with his league-leading sixth among coaches, Thibodeau -- Mike Dunleavy released his frustration with a highlight-reel block of Kris Humphries and putback basket at the other end to close the third.
"I told him we need him to be angry all the time," Taj Gibson cracked.
In the fourth, Gibson provided another highlight when he powered through a flagrant-one foul on Jared Sullinger for a three-point play, landed hard and suffered a sore wrist Gibson said he would play through. Fittingly, Noah provided the assist.
"When you lose a player like Derrick (Rose), everyone has to play well," Noah said. "Our margin of error is a lot smaller. ... I think we'll have a shot to play in the playoffs if we keep grinding. And in the playoffs, anything can happen."
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