Bulls hold off Suns in overtime to start 'Circus Trip'

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Bulls hold off Suns in overtime to start 'Circus Trip'

PHOENIXThings might get a bit hairy, but in the Tom Thibodeau era, the annual Circus Trip is no longer an event to be dreaded, as evidenced by the Bulls (5-3) 112-106 overtime victory over the Suns (4-5) Wednesday night at the U.S. Airways Center.

A physical contest that featured three Bulls technical fouls, the Bulls built an 18-point lead in the third quarter, then squandered it as Phoenix made a dramatic comeback, but the visitors stayed resilient and held on to dominate the extra session for the win.

A fast-paced contest at the outset, Carlos Boozer (28 points, 14 rebounds) got off to another quick start, as the power forward finished at the rim, knocked down his mid-range jumper and ran the floor in transition. For Phoenix, point guard Goran Dragic (12 points) best known by Bulls fans for Derrick Roses vicious dunk on him three seasons ago, but a revelation in Houston in the previous campaign before returning to the Suns in free agency over the summer dominated play, but also got forwards and fellow offseason acquisitions Luis Scola (24 points, 14 rebounds) and Michael Beasley (12 points) involved.

The visitors were also hampered by early foul trouble for Joakim Noah (21 points, 12 rebounds, five assists) and Kirk Hinrich (seven assists), the latter of whom returned to the lineup after a one-game absence due to a right hip strain, but it still remained a close-knit affair in the opening period. Through one quarter of play the Bulls held a narrow advantage, 29-27.

Sparked by All-Star Luol Deng (21 points) and reserve guards Nate Robinson (11 points) and Marco Belinelli, the Bulls maintained the teams slight edge early in the second frame. However, the Suns rode Scolas combination of jumpers and crafty interior scoring to stay within striking distance and gradually overtook their hosts, even after the majority of the Bulls starters were inserted back into the game.

Following a technical foul on Rip Hamilton (15 points), Jimmy Butler, playing only spot minutes when Deng gets one of his rare breaks, ignited a 13-0 Bulls run which included Hamiltons first missed free throw of the season after making 17 straight to begin the campaign toward the end of the half. At the intermission, the Bulls led, 57-51.

After the break, the Bulls played with the same fervor that they ended the previous period with, pushing the pace successfully without sacrificing defense to create some breathing room. After seeing his playing curtailed because of first-half foul trouble, Noah made his presence felt in the third quarter and fellow big man Boozer continued his consistent scoring efforts.

Deng also got it going en route to the visitors blowing the contest wide open even Hinrich picking up his fourth foul early in the period couldnt derail their extended spurt, as Robinson picked up the slack nicely and with the defense forcing turnovers, their transition game in gear and unselfish passing leading to quality shot opportunities, the Bulls maintained a comfortable winning margin. Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls were ahead, 83-69.

At the outset of the fourth quarter, the Suns attempted to battle back behind Scola and surprising contributions from the likes of reserves Sebastian Telfair (17 points), Markieff Morris (10 rebounds), P.J. Tucker (eight rebounds) and Maywood, Ill., native Shannon Brown (11 points), but timely plays from the Bulls such as a desperation three-pointer off of one leg by Deng to beat the shot clock helped stave off the hosts. Still, Phoenix continued to make a push and by the midway point of the period, it was a two-possession contest.

It seemed as if the Bulls would eke out a win in regulation, but a combination of gutty plays by the Suns beating the visitors at their own game with a physical nature and outright hustle as well as missed opportunities by the guests led to Phoenix tying the game at 100 apiece with 9.4 seconds to go on a Tucker layup. Out of a timeout, the Bulls got the ball to Hamilton for a potential game-winner, but tough defense by Brown prevented the veteran from knocking down a heavily contested and the contest went into overtime.

In the extra session, the Bulls dominated, as they clamped down on the defensive end and began executing precisely on offense. Deng started things off with a jumper and they rolled from there, as Hamilton made a pair of jumpers, Noah was a force on the glass and clutch free-throw shooting ensured that the door wouldnt be left open for another Suns comeback.

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott wasn’t exactly hunting for his first shot, but the first time he touched the ball in an NBA game in nearly a month wasn’t the optimal situation for him to let one fly.

It wasn’t in transition where he runs to an opening behind the 3-point line, nor was it a drive-and-kick situation where the help defense collapsed and left him open. It was a regular, simple, pass to the perimeter and McDermott’s defender was in reasonable proximity with 3:23 left in the first quarter.

He launched and the crowd soon roared its approval as his sweet jumper was sorely missed by the Bulls bench brigade—and moments later when he ran the floor for a fearless layup that caused Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to call a timeout, McDermott showed he missed the United Center crowd too, calling for more noise on his way to the bench.

“Anytime you have a guy like Doug, he comes back and makes his first 3, that’s hard to do,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He stepped up with confidence on that first shot. I’m sure he had a lot of nerves getting back out there.”

Missing 12 games and suffering two concussions, McDermott looked right at home in 25 minutes of run Thursday as the Bulls were able to rely on their reserves in some form in their 95-91 win over the previously perfect road warriors known as the Spurs.

“We defended and kept them off the foul line,” McDermott said. “Coach (Jim) Boylen was with them, so we feel we know them and I think all this time they were missing my defense.”

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The last statement was certainly tongue-in-cheek, but the Bulls’ bench production was certainly missing in action while he was out with the concussion protocol. So much so that his return prompted the Bulls’ coaching staff to call out the reserves in the morning shootaround, demanding more.

“It’s definitely Dwyane (Wade) and Jimmy (Butler) and (Rajon) Rondo (but) the coaching staff kinda called out our bench like, we gotta have you tonight, bench,” McDermott said. “We took that to heart, we were really locked in.”

Seemingly his presence aided the Bulls’ spirits and production, as the Bulls’ bench had the least effective scoring bench in the NBA since Nov. 13, the day after McDermott hit the unforgiving floor against the Wizards for his second concussion this season.

Their net rating ranks ahead of only the Wizards, Mavericks and Nets, who are a combined 17-45 this season. Their effective field goal percentage, which takes into account 3-pointers, is worst in the league in that span (42.3 percent).

When McDermott was healthy for that smaller sample size, the Bulls’ bench ranked fifth in offensive efficiency, seventh in net rating, and fifth in efficient field goal percentage. Whether McDermott – and his absence – was directly related to those numbers, it’s clear the Bulls are better when they have their best reserve – and only true floor spacers on the second unit – on the court.

“We’re all professionals and we want to help the guys who are busting their butts in the first unit to get us the leads,” McDermott said. “Tonight we did a great job of sustaining it. We take it personal when teams come back on us.”

[MORE: Pau Gasol relishes consistency with Spurs he couldn't find with Bulls]

Nikola Mirotic was four of eight from the field, and Cristiano Felicio seems to be back in Fred Hoiberg’s good graces as he’s carved out a rotation spot for himself with nine points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes.

It seems as if Hoiberg will stick with this rotation of players, at least for a little while until Michael Carter-Williams returns from his injuries. If McDermott is the mark of the Bulls’ bench going from bottom feeder to adequate, it should show this month.

“When he’s out there on the floor and we get him coming off screens, it forces the defense to shift as another person they need to be aware of,” Hoiberg said. “It opens up driving lanes for our guys. It was great to have Doug back with us.”

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

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