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Basketball / Sports

Joakim Noah insists Bulls won't lose focus

CHICAGO -- In the final week of the Bulls' recent 3-3 trip, Joakim Noah shot off his mouth to officials, shot pantomime finger guns to celebrate a jumper and shot a look of incredulity to a questioner.

The latter moment came Sunday afternoon in the Bulls' postgame locker room, which sounded as confident and buoyant as any in recent memory. The Bulls had just downed the Lakers to conclude a season-high six-game trip that featured injury and ejection, moments of promise and pause.

And Noah was asked if the Bulls, like most teams, had to guard against losing focus in this, the final week before the All-Star break.

"C'mon, man," Noah said playfully.

This is, after all, a team coached by a man whose idea of looking ahead is turning to Page 2 of his practice plan. And it's a roster that management has filled with prideful, competitive players who believe the best is yet to come in this disjointed campaign marred by Derrick Rose's second straight season-ending injury.

"You can never exhale," Noah said. "We feel we have to get better. Our whole thing is playing with more of an edge than the other team. That's our mentality."

Noah, who was ejected from a loss in Sacramento and broke out his retired gunslinger routine during another loss at Golden State, will be vacationing in New Orleans, making his second straight All-Star appearance. But after Monday's day off, the Bulls' attention remains fixed on the Atlanta Hawks.

Heck, Thibodeau might not even know his old buddies Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, as well as Marquis Teague, will visit the United Center with the Nets on Thursday as part of a final TNT doubleheader before the break. Such is the singularity of this team's focus.

"We've been in this short-handed position before many times," said Taj Gibson, who continued his offensive breakthrough by averaging 15.8 points on the trip. "The whole time (I've) been here, we've always had real tough injuries. But we always claw and fight. We believe we have a shot."

Kyle Korver also has a shot, albeit of a different kind, merely one of the most unerring 3-pointers in the league. The former Bull totes an NBA-record streak of 118 games with at least one 3-pointer into Tuesday's matchup, a staggering stretch for the sharpshooter.

But defense isn't the Bulls' main issue. They rank second behind the Pacers in average points allowed and third behind the Pacers and Thunder in opponents' field-goal percentage.

Offense is the Bulls' top concern. Even with the sporadic savior status of D.J. Augustin, who has saved several games with fourth-quarter baskets and savvy pick-and-roll play, the Bulls rank last in scoring at 92.1 points per game.

More consistent shooting from Kirk Hinrich would help. The veteran guard turned back the clock in the final two games of the trip, hitting 14 of 24 shots and averaging 16 points.

"I'm disappointed with the way I've shot and played offensively," Hinrich said. "I feel I can do more. I'm not going to lose confidence. But I'm motivated to knock more shots down."

The Bulls have two shots to rise above .500 before the All-Star break. Not that the Bulls are looking ahead to Thursday or anything.

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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