CHCIAGO -- As Joakim Noah held court with reporters after the Bulls' 96-85 victory over the Nets, Carlos Boozer passed by.
"That's the Defensive Player of the Year," Boozer said.
Noah is on some kind of roll. His 21 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and four blocks came on the heels of his historic triple-double against the 76ers, and his play is going beyond staggering numbers.
"It not only inspires, it unites," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Any time you see a big-time hustle play, that motivates a team. What he's doing on the floor is the best type of leadership you can have."
The victory allowed the Bulls to pass the Nets by half a game and they are within percentage points of the Hawks for fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings with a large showdown on tap Sunday against the No. 3 Pacers in Indianapolis.
"We're shorthanded. We haven't been playing well," said Kirk Hinrich, who scored in double figures with 12 points for the third straight game. "He's kind of just willed us these last couple of games. We talk all the time about picking each other up. When you see a teammate playing like that, it's hard to dog it because it would make you look pretty bad."
The Bulls played like dogs early, stumbling out of the gate with three fouls and a technical on Noah in the first 85 seconds, falling behind 15-4.
By quarter's end, they had earned a 27-27 tie and then closed the first half with a 15-0 run as the Nets went scoreless over the final 4 minutes, 36 seconds. That Bulls' run and Nets' drought extended to 19-0 and 7:24 before Brook Lopez finally sank two free throws at the 9:12 mark of the third.
The Bulls held a double-digit lead the entire second half, but a sloppy stretch forced Thibodeau to bring back his starters late.
"I saw the way the game was going," Thibodeau said. "You're jogging back. They have a lot of 3-point shooting on the floor. A 10-point lead can dissipate in a minute. We were in the penalty and recklessly fouling. We have to do better."
Noah, who is battling plantar fasciitis, has logged 127 minutes in the last three games.
"It's not really right after the game but the next morning is usually the roughest," Noah said, before chuckling and smiling. "We have a great coach but he doesn't understand the whole rest thing yet I don't think. But we all want to win, so it's all good.
"I'm a little banged up but everybody is at this point of the year. What do you want me to say, man? It's like, yeah, I'm tired, pretty tired. I've been working on it every day, getting massages, treatments and doing everything possible to get that under control."
Luol Deng suffered through a 3-for-10 shooting night and said afterward his lower jaw is out of line, he's having trouble eating and he may need root canal work after taking that Spencer Hawes elbow to his face late Thursday. Nate Robinson, one of five in double figures, also is banged up.
"We're playing with better energy and more purpose," Noah said.
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