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Noah faces huge challenge with first-round matchup
By Mike McGraw | Daily Herald Staff

Joakim Noah


Associated Press

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Published: 4/14/2009 4:15 PM | Updated: 4/14/2009 10:31 PM

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Much of the playoff buzz surrounding the Bulls is whether they can lock up the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference and get a somewhat favorable first-round matchup against Orlando.

Favorable to everyone but Joakim Noah, that is. He'd have to spend a playoff series guarding Magic center Dwight Howard, a guaranteed first-team all-NBA honoree and likely defensive player of the year.

"Dwight is an animal. He's the best center in the league," Noah said following Tuesday's short practice at the Berto Center. "It's exciting, though. It's exciting to go up against the best on the big stage. Dwight's a lot to handle, but it's going to be an exciting time."

Monday's 91-88 win at Detroit set the stage for a possible sixth-place finish.

The Bulls (41-40) control their own destiny, since Philadelphia suffered its sixth straight loss Tuesday night against Boston. If the Bulls beat Toronto on Wednesday night at the United Center, they will clinch the No. 6 seed and a first-round matchup against Orlando. Even if the Bulls lose Wednesday night, they can still get sixth if the 76ers lose in Cleveland. Game 1 will be either Saturday or Sunday.

The Cavaliers already clinched the league's best record but have a chance to match the NBA's all-time best home record at 40-1 (tying the 1985-86 Celtics), so it's difficult to imagine Cleveland lying down for Wednesday's game.

If the Bulls lose and Philadelphia wins, the Bulls will be the No. 7 seed and face Boston, which means Noah would have to deal with Kevin Garnett, who still is recovering from a knee injury, and Kendrick Perkins, who has given the Bulls problems.

On Tuesday, anyway, Noah couldn't stop smiling about what's in store. The Bulls were a season-low nine games below .500 on Jan. 25 but now have a chance to finish with a winning record. They've gone 12-3 since March 14 and have won five straight.

"It's unbelievable how when you walk into this building for practice, the difference between now compared to three months ago," Noah said. "Guys are here early, guys are smiling. It's just a good vibe in here. Three months ago, I don't think anybody could say that it was fun to come to the Berto Center."

The turnaround in attitude can be attributed in part to new additions Brad Miller and John Salmons, who arrived from Sacramento in a Feb. 18 trade. But Noah also admitted that winning solves most problems in the sports world.

"That's all it is - just the winning," he said. "The new faces definitely helped a lot. What Brad and John bring to the table, it wasn't unexpected, but it was definitely - I mean, you tell me a team that had a better trade this season.

"I love Drew Gooden and I love Noc (Andres Nocioni), but I feel like those (new) guys have definitely brought our team to another level. The numbers don't lie."