Joakim Noah and the Chicago Bulls emerge from the All-Star break trying to pick up where they left off.
The Toronto Raptors already have.
Noah and the Bulls are looking for another strong defensive effort in order to continue their recent surge and beat the Raptors on the road again Wednesday night.
Chicago (27-25) has won three in a row and four of five after coasting to a 92-76 home win over Brooklyn on Thursday. That winning streak has been spurred by superb defensive play, as the Bulls yielded an average of 82.3 points - 10.0 better than their season mark which ranks second in the NBA.
They allow opponents to shoot 43.4 percent, also among the best in the league. That's a big reason why the Bulls are the only non-division leader above .500 in the East and fourth in the conference standings.
"There's definitely a lot of basketball left," Noah said. "We're just taking it game by game. There's 30 games left. I think we entered the break pretty well. We're playing good basketball right now. It's not time to exhale. We just have to keep pushing, and then the fun starts."
Noah had a bit of fun Sunday, scoring eight points with five rebounds and five assists to help the East to a 163-155 win in the All-Star game. The other members of the Bulls used the time off to rest.
"The rest of us got a chance to recover, let our body heal a little bit and get ready for the second-half stretch," forward Carlos Boozer said. "Get ready for the playoffs.
"For us to get home court would be great, and as high as we can get."
Having a healthy Boozer would surely help. The team leader with an average of 14.8 points, Boozer missed three games with a sore calf but returned Thursday to score 15 with 10 rebounds.
Noah is averaging 17.7 points and 14.0 boards while shooting 57.1 percent over the past three games. He wasn't nearly that effective on the offensive end against the Raptors (29-24) on Dec. 31, missing 8 of 10 from the floor while finishing with seven points and 16 rebounds in an 85-79 home loss.
He had 18 points and nine boards in a 96-80 win at Toronto on Nov. 15, when the Bulls won there for the fifth time in seven tries.
The Atlantic Division-leading Raptors enter this matchup on a 7-3 run during which they've averaged 102.0 points - 105.0 over a three-game winning streak. They connected on a season-high 56.8 percent from the field en route to a 103-93 win Tuesday at Washington after returning from the break.
Kyle Lowry is putting together his own strong stretch, averaging 19.8 points and 9.2 assists in the last five games after posting 24 and 10 against the Wizards.
"I just was getting more looks, trying to attack a little more," Lowry said. "That first game out of the break is always tough and I didn't want to let that be an excuse for us to lose the game."
Lowry, though, was held to six points while missing 12 of 15 field goals in the most recent home meeting with the Bulls.
DeMar DeRozan, Toronto's lone All-Star, had 37 points in that matchup. He was held to 14 on Tuesday after addressing the team.
"Just (told) everybody to be focused," DeRozan said. "Each and every single game matters from here on out especially if we want to do something special. We can't take any nights off."