Joakim Noah has called LeBron James out for excessive celebration while with the Cavaliers and classified the Heat as "Hollywood as hell" once James made his free-agent decision and switched teams.

But competitiveness and rabid rivalry aside, Noah recognizes greatness. And the season James is having to lead the Heat is furthering his hold on being the game's most transcendent talent.

"You have to give credit where credit is due. He's one of the best to do it," Noah said in advance of Thursday's nationally televised showdown at the United Center. "You have to respect your opponent. At the same time, we feel like we're more than capable of winning. So we respect our abilities too."

Noah said he didn't interact much with James or Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh when that Heat threesome served as Eastern Conference All-Star teammates with the Bulls' emotional leader over the weekend in Houston. But asked if James is currently the game's best player, Noah answered immediately before adding a minor caveat.

"Yeah, I think he is," Noah said. "Definitely one of the top two or three. Everybody's a little bit different. But he's definitely a handful."

James entered Wednesday's game at Atlanta with a staggeringly gaudy shooting percentage of .565. That trailed only five centers; you know, players who typically shoot mostly layups and dunks.

"When you look at his entire career, each year he has gotten significantly better," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "He has the ability to dominate a game in so many ways. He can do it through post up, drive, his shot, the pass, his defense. That's what makes him unique.

"The way his team is playing and the fact they won the title last year and he remains so hungry is a credit to him."

Sources told the Tribune in 2010 that James strongly connected during his basketball conversations with Thibodeau when the Bulls made their free-agent pitch and that James greatly respected Thibodeau's defensive schemes from past Celtics-Cavaliers' matchups.