Bulls charge into break on high note

Carlos Boozer’s grin was as wide as the lane.

The Chicago Bulls had just finished off another opponent, this

time old friend Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Bobcats, and he could

hardly contain himself.

At 38-16, the Bulls already have nearly as many wins as they did

in each of the previous two seasons (41) and are enjoying their

best season since the Jordan-Scottie Pippen championship era,

thanks to an offseason overhaul and Derrick Rose’s emergence as an

MVP candidate. They’re challenging for the Eastern Conference’s top

seed, right there with big, bad Boston, not to mention the South

Beach superstars in Miami and Superman a few hours north in

Orlando.

No wonder Boozer was smiling. And that was earlier in the week,

before Chicago knocked off San Antonio 109-99 on Thursday.

He sees wins piling up, contributions coming from all

corners.

”That’s what basketball’s about,” he said. ”It’s

awesome.”

And to think: The fun might just be starting.

Center Joakim Noah is expected to return from a thumb injury

next week, and maybe then, the Bulls will find out just how good

they really are.

They expected bigger things following an offseason overhaul that

left them with a new coach and only five returning players, and

they’re getting just that.

Rose made it clear from the start he wanted MVP consideration

and is backing it up, averaging 24.9 points and 8.2 assists. He was

voted in as the Bulls’ first All-Star starter since Jordan in 1998

after being selected as a reserve in his second season.

Luol Deng (17.6 points) is having arguably his best season.

Boozer (19.3 points, 9.9 rebounds) is delivering as expected

after being lured to Chicago with a five-year, $75 million deal,

yet the Bulls remain something of a mystery because their two best

big men have hardly played together.

Boozer missed the first 15 games because of a broken bone in his

right hand. Noah underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his

right thumb in mid-December, meaning they’ve played a grand total

of nine games together.

”It’s another quality big to add to the mix,” coach Tom

Thibodeau said. ”I think Jo got off to a great start.

Unfortunately, he got hurt, but that’s part of it. He’s done a

great job with his rehab, and we’re looking forward to him being

back.”

Noah was off to his best start before shutting it down,

averaging career highs in points (14.0) and rebounds (11.7).

”When he comes back, we’re going to be very tough,” Rose

said.

They’re anything but pushovers at the moment.

The Bulls are an Eastern Conference-leading 15-4 since

back-to-back losses at New Jersey and Philadelphia, a surge that

started with a win over Boston on Jan. 8 and included victories

over Dallas and Orlando to go with that showing against San

Antonio.

Rose poured in a career-high 42 points against the Spurs after

outscoring Utah’s Deron Williams and New Orleans’ Chris Paul by a

combined 52-26 in recent victories.

Yes, the Bulls are looking good at the moment.

When they come back from the break, they’ll visit Toronto on

Wednesday before hosting Miami the next night in a matchup of two

of the league’s best defensive teams. Only the Heat (42.6 percent)

are holding opponents to a lower field goal percentage than Chicago

(42.9 percent).

On the glass, the Bulls are right there at the top. They’re

outrebounding opponents by a league-leading 4.63 average and are

second to Minnesota in total rebounds per game at 44.04, despite

the absence of Boozer early on and Noah the past two months.

There’s depth. Role players are contributing.

”They’ve made a team commitment from the start,” Thibodeau

said. ”They’ve committed to playing together, playing unselfishly

at both ends of the floor, and they’ve committed to working hard

together. We felt going into the season that we had quality depth,

and I think it’s shown. … We’re counting on everybody, and we

know at some point in the season, we’re going to need

everybody.”

Associated Press freelance writer Mark Perlman in Chicago

contributed to this report.