DEERFIELD, Ill. – Joakim Noah has a pretty good idea what to expect on Thursday night.
The Chicago Bulls host the Boston Celtics in a game that could have a big impact on the race for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and he anticipates a charged atmosphere at the United Center.
"I think it's going to be a zoo in here on Thursday," he said. "It's very exciting."
These, indeed, are exciting times in Chicago.
With 16 wins in 18 games and the No. 1 seed in reach, the Bulls haven't had it this good since the Michael Jordan championship era.
They were three games ahead of Miami and Boston at 57-20 after hanging on to beat Phoenix on Tuesday. A win over the Celtics would all but eliminate them from the race for the top seed. The Bulls would be four games ahead of Boston four to go in the regular season.
The next tiebreaker if they finished with identical records would be conference play, and at the moment, the Celtics are 35-12 with the Bulls 34-13 against the East.
"It means a lot," veteran forward Luol Deng said. "(The top seed) gives you the homecourt, but also, just having the best record tells a lot about the kind of season you had."
Big things were expected after a major offseason overhaul that came on the heels of back-to-back 41-win seasons and first-round playoff exits.
The Bulls fired coach Vinny Del Negro and replaced him with Tom Thibodeau. They were big spenders in free agency, landing Carlos Boozer and adding depth on their bench after failing to sign LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Even so, most expected them to finish behind Boston, Miami and Orlando. Well, now look at them.
Derrick Rose is challenging for the MVP award. Thibodeau is a strong coach of the year candidate, and the Bulls are leading the East even though Boozer and Noah have missed significant chunks of the season due to injuries.
"You want to go step by step," said Thibodeau, who broke Phil Jackson's club record for wins by a first-year coach. "You focus on each game. You want to put as many things in your favor as possible. Being the highest seed possible is important. You can't say that it's not, but you have to take it step by step."
Beating Boston would be a big one.
Beyond that, though, the Bulls realize they also need to address some issues.
They were beaten on the boards for the third time in five games Tuesday, although they're still outrebounding opponents by a league-high 5.56 per game, and they let a 22-point lead in the second half dwindle to two before pulling out a 97-94 win over the Suns. Noah was a bit out of sync after missing three games with a sprained right ankle, finishing with 12 points and four rebounds.
"A lot of balls have been coming out of my hands," he said. "I have to do a better job of that."
The Bulls need to do a better job finishing off opponents. Besides the late drama with Phoenix, they had some defensive lapses against Toronto in the previous game and struggled to put away the Raptors.
"It's a lot of things we need to tighten up," Deng said. "We all know that. We're not panicking. The last few games, we've got to do a better job, especially in the second half. ... It's stuff that I'm sure we'll sort it out."
This would be a good time, with Boston coming to town.
Is it a statement game?
"No," Thibodeau, the former Celtics assistant, shot back. It is, however, an important one.
"They're a very talented team, they're well-coached," Thibodeau said. "There's not anything that we're doing that they don't know, and there's not anything that they're doing that we don't know. It'll come down to how well we can execute and how well they can execute. They're the defending Eastern Conference champions. Until someone knocks them off, you've got to be ready to compete with them."