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David Nwaba close to return but likely at the back of the line

David Nwaba has a pretty good idea of where he’ll go when he returns from an injured right ankle — right to the back of the line.

Before Nwaba’s setback during a loss to the Pelicans on Nov. 4, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg had put him in the starting lineup, where he averaged nine points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals in three games. More important, he brought some sorely needed life to the starting group.

The Bulls went 1-2 in those three games but were competitive in the losses, losing to the Pelicans and Heat by just six points.

And then?

Three of the Bulls’ first four games without Nwaba were one-sided laughers before they beat the visiting Hornets on Friday.

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“David’s a guy we miss,” Hoiberg said Friday. “We miss his energy, his live body. He’s a guy that can get in the paint, create for himself and others.”

Nice words, but it doesn’t mean Nwaba is headed right back to the starting lineup when his ankle is ready. Though Hoiberg hasn’t told him so, Nwaba expects he’s “most likely going to work my way back up. That’s the plan.”

It might start sooner than expected. Although the timetable for his return was originally two to four weeks, it sounded closer to four at mid-week. But Nwaba has had a quick turnaround since, participating in the shootaround Friday morning and hoping to practice Saturday. If there are no setbacks, he could play as soon as Sunday in Phoenix.

“That’s the plan, but I’m not too sure how much I’ll be able to do,” he said. “It’s still kind of bugging me, still kind of swollen. I know I can’t wait for it to be 100 percent, so I’m just going to see how much pain I can tolerate.”

The problem with Nwaba is his game is predicated on quick movements bordering on violent. He’s slash, cut and attack.

Asked if he was concerned his strengths could be hampered, he admitted, “A little bit. But there’s other ways to help your team out there. It’s not just about my individual performance. It’s about just being out there to help my teammates by doing the little things.”

Another new look

Hoiberg rolled out a sixth different lineup Friday, going with Denzel Valentine again at a wing spot.

“Just get another playmaker out there,” Hoiberg said of the decision to go with Valentine over Paul Zipser and Quincy Pondexter. “Another guy that can knock down a shot, get as much scoring as possible to get off to a better start, good in his role coming off the bench. We need him out there right away to get off to a better start.”

Valentine helped make that happen, scoring five points in eight minutes during the first quarter before leaving with the Bulls up by four points.

90 envy

Hoiberg said he caught the Rockets-Suns game on Thursday night, during which the Rockets scored 90 points by halftime.

“Crazy,” he said. “I’d pay to get 90 in a game.”

The Bulls entered Friday night’s game dead last in the NBA in scoring, averaging 92.4 points. They were one of only four teams averaging below 100, along with the Mavericks (98.9), Jazz (98.5) and Kings (93.6).

Follow me on Twitter @suntimes_hoops.

Email: jcowley@suntimes.com