DEERFIELD, Ill. – It's been more than two months since Joakim Noah suited up for the Chicago Bulls. Well, the wait is just about over.
Sidelined by a torn ligament in his right thumb, Noah will return to the Bulls' starting lineup when they visit Toronto on Wednesday.
"Very excited, very excited," he said. "It's been awhile. I'm just excited to play basketball again."
Noah said his thumb feels "a lot better," and although there wasn't much contact in practice, he's not concerned how it will hold up.
Coach Tom Thibodeau said after Tuesday's practice that the center's conditioning will dictate how much he plays the next few games but hopes to have him logging starter's minutes as soon as possible.
At 38-16, the Bulls are leading the Central division and challenging for the top seed in the Eastern Conference even though injuries have prevented Noah and Carlos Boozer from playing much together. This will be Noah's first game since a win at Toronto on Dec. 15.
He had surgery shortly afterward, but the Bulls continued to win big, going 22-8 in his absence.
"I don't know how he's going to respond once he's out there," Thibodeau said. "We'll see how he is. Obviously, we'll try to get him up to starters minutes as quickly as possible. It'll be similar to what Carlos went through — each game a little bit more — and I think once they start playing, they'll come around pretty quickly."
Boozer, the centerpiece in the Bulls' offseason overhaul, missed the first 15 games after breaking a bone in his right hand in a fall at home in early October.
Noah got off to his best start, averaging 14.0 points and 11.7 rebounds, but the two haven't really been healthy at the same time.
They've played just nine games together, which is why the Bulls remain something of a mystery even though they're enjoying their best season since the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen championship era. They're right behind Boston and Miami and ahead of Orlando because they're getting contributions from all over.
"It's more than just making the playoffs now," Noah said. "There's definitely a bigger picture. We're excited to see where we stand."
That picture certainly includes a spot for Noah. The Bulls will have to make some adjustments, though.
"It's always hard working somebody into the lineup, especially when they've been out for a long time," Derrick Rose said. "You get used to not playing with them. So we'll have to see tomorrow."
The Bulls won 15 of 19 before the All-Star break, beating the Celtics to start the run and taking out San Antonio last week, and they'll get a big test when they host the Heat on Thursday.
They traded former first-round pick James Johnson to Toronto for a first-rounder the Raptors acquired in the Chris Bosh sign-and-trade. That pick could be used in another deal for a player like, say, Courtney Lee, Anthony Parker or Rasual Butler.
Either way, they're in a good spot.
Noah could provide a spark and set off a few more fastbreaks with his rebounding, shot-blocking and ability to run the floor. He also plays an important part on offense with his passing and pick-and-roll ability even though he's not a great shooter.
"It's going to be tough," Rose said. "Sometimes, we'll walk the ball upcourt. Now, all of us have to get back into game shape. Fastbreaks, they may get you tired, especially running like that the whole game. It's going to be hard, definitely, but I think we should be fine."
Noah is simply ready to get back on the court.
"I think I always play with passion and fire," he said. "I'm ready. It's been a lot of waiting. I've been trying to be as patient as possible, but I'm really happy that it's finally here."