January 13, 2015

CHICAGO (AP) Given that the Chicago Bulls had key players coming back from injuries and newcomers trying to fit in, Joakim Noah figured there would be some difficult stretches.

The Bulls are in one at the moment.

The Central division leaders have dropped three of four after winning 13 of 15 heading into Wednesday's game against John Wall and the Washington Wizards.

''This is our story,'' Noah said. ''This is the journey. In the season, there's always going to be ups and downs. When there's adversity, people (are going to show) their true colors. That's the way it is. And we're going through something right now. We got to stick together and make it work.

''The injuries, the new guys - we can make excuses, but this is who we are,'' he continued. ''It's not going to change. So it's on us to fix it or it's not going to work.''

For the most part, it has worked quite well for the Bulls.

At 26-13, they are one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference even though Rose is still working his way back after two season-ending knee injuries and Noah is still adjusting after offseason surgery on his left knee. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year has also been slowed by a right ankle injury.

That has not stopped the Bulls from dominating at times. The emergence of Jimmy Butler along with the addition of Pau Gasol gives Chicago one of the league's deepest rotations.

Even so, there are issues.

The Bulls have allowed 100 or more points 18 times this season and are giving up just over 99 per game, after allowing a league-low 91.8 a year ago. They have also dropped seven games against teams with sub-.500 records, with five of those losses coming at home.

Two were to Utah and Orlando during this 1-3 stretch.

''They also have shown times where they've played great defense,'' coach Tom Thibodeau said Tuesday. ''So it's in them.''

They did not show it against Orlando on Monday. The Bulls fell 121-114, with the Magic setting season highs for points and shooting (59 percent) while snapping a six-game losing streak, and Thibodeau lit into the team afterward.

Part of the problem is Noah still seems to be limited. He does not look as agile as he did last season and, at least on the surface, it appears he and Gasol have not quite meshed on the court the way the Bulls envisioned.

There is more to it, though.

''You also have to ask what's happening with the ball?'' Thibodeau said. ''It's not just them. It's are we doing the proper things to direct the ball where it should go? Are the smalls coming at the bigs with speed? If we do go to help are we getting the proper support behind the ball?''

Thibodeau has trimmed Noah's minutes from 35.3 per game last season to 31. His rebounding is down from an average 11.3 to 9.6. But Thibodeau sees that knack for cleaning up on the glass returning and believes his game will be there at some point.

Noah, meanwhile, wasn't about to make any excuses. He wasn't really interested in talking about the knee.

Asked if he has been experiencing ups and downs with it, he answered ''no.'' Has there been a steady progression physically? ''Yes,'' he said.

''I've just got to keep working, keep getting after it,'' he said. ''I'm feeling better and better so I've got to keep working.''

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