CLEVELANDIt was more difficult than necessary, but if dragging out a seemingly inevitable, 95-85 Bulls (9-8) victory over the Cavaliers (4-15) at Quicken Loans Arena is what Marco Belinelli needed to get going, it might have been worth it. The free-agent acquisition had his best night of the season Wednesday and though the effort wasnt the 48-minute effort the team strives for, it was a nice bounce-back game after a gut-wrenching loss the previous evening at home.Starting in place of sidelined veteran Rip Hamilton for the second straight night, backup shooting guard Belinelli (23 points) was aggressive from the outsetscoring from the outside and even in the post, using his size advantage to knock down a fadeaway jumper over Cavaliers' counterpart Daniel Boobie Gibson, who was starting for injured rookie starter Dion Waitersand helped the visitors jump out to an early lead. In fact, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau apparently thought so highly of Belinellis start that he pulled a shocker: Luol Deng (22 points, seven rebounds), the leagues minutes-per-game leader, not Belinelli, came out of the game when second-year swingman Jimmy Butler checked in late in the opening period.With balanced scoring from the other startersincluding Joakim Noah (13 points, 15 rebounds) and Cleveland doppelganger Anderson Varejao (11 points, 15 rebounds) virtually canceling each other outand reserves Butler and Taj Gibson not missing a beat upon entering the contest, the Bulls, making a gaudy two-thirds of their shots and limiting their hosts to making just a third of their attempts, easily surged to a double-digit advantage. After a quarter of play, the Bulls were ahead, 27-11.While the Bulls cooled down offensively in the second periodthough Belinelli knocked down his first shot of the frame before getting a well-deserved breather after scoring 12 first-half pointsthe visitors continued to give a stout defensive effort, ensuring that the Cavaliers wouldnt get any easy opportunities. Additionally, the guests appeared to make a concerted effort to take better care of the balla bugaboo all season, as well as a slight issue in the first quarterwhich prevented Cleveland from getting out in transition, their best method of scoring without their young backcourt of reigning Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving and the aforementioned Waiters in action.The Bulls continued to cruise, maintaining their comfortable winning margin and while they werent perfect, they generally played the mistake-free brand of basketball that Thibodeau prefers. With forwards Deng and Carlos Boozer (10 points, 12 rebounds)the latter, whose first NBA team in Cleveland, didnt exactly receive a warm receptionmaking positive offensive contributions, starting floor general Kirk Hinrich (11 points, eight assists) capably handling playmaking duties and backup point guard Nate Robinson providing his usual spark off the bench, the Bulls went into the intermission with a 45-35 lead.Cleveland made a push after the break, with Varejaos rebounding and help on the interior from second-year big man Tristan Thompson, leading the way. But the Bulls were prepared for a potential run and with Belinellis hot hand persistingat least until he picked up his fourth foul midway through the period, giving way to Butleras well as Deng starting to get going and Noahs high activity level yielding strong work on the glass against a similarly energetic opponent in Varejao, the visitors clung to their breathing room.The likes of Gibson and reserve guard Donald Sloan joined in the Cavaliers comeback effort and when rookie big man Tyler Zeller made it a two-possession contest, 64-59 in favor of the Bulls, with 1:51 to go in the third quarter, it officially became a ballgame. Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls were up 72-63, following Hinrich scoring the last six points of the period for the visitors.The fourth quarter started somewhat ominously, with Gibson picking up his fourth foul and Noah subsequently drawing a technical, already his fifth on the young campaign. But no matter how tenuous the Bulls control of the game appeared, they surreptitiously built up their lead, behind contributions from the likes of Deng, Noah, Robinson and of course, Belinelli, who was enjoying his best outing in a Bulls uniform.Cleveland didnt relent, however, cutting the deficit to single digits again after an Alonzo Gee triple midway through the period, but shortly afterwards, the Bulls put their foot down, outclassing their inferior foe and extending their lead to the point where it was all academic from there on out. The hosts waved the white flag, as Cavaliers head coach subbed out key starters when the contest entered its stretch run, ensuring that the Bulls got off to a positive start on their two-game, Central Division road trip.
Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.
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Five Things to Watch:
1. Grab the first goal.
The Blackhawks have scored the game's first goal in seven of the last eight games, and of those seven, they've won six of them. Meanwhile, the Lightning have scored the first goal only 17 times in 48 games this season, and are 12-5-1 in those games. They're 9-17-4 when they allow the first goal, so getting out to a lead first will be important against a struggling Lightning team looking for signs of life.
2. Will the floodgates open for Jonathan Toews?
After a four-point game in a 4-2 win over Vancouver, the Blackhawks captain matched his point total over his previous nine games. He's up to 26 points on the season, which is now fifth among Chicago forwards. When Toews has offensive droughts, they usually last longer than they should. But when he gets hot, he gets extremely hot. Perhaps we'll see the floodgates open offensively.
3. A chance for the team lead in scoring.
With an empty-net goal on Sunday, Marian Hossa tied Artem Anisimov for the team-lead with 18 goals. Artemi Panarin is right behind with 17, and Patrick Kane isn't far either at 15. The Blackhawks had four 20-goal scorers last season, and haven't had more than that since the 2013-14 season. They're definitely on pace to hit four, but could they surprass that? Richard Panik, who scored another goal Sunday as well, is fifth with 11 goals while Ryan Hartman has 10. Toews is at eight, but a flurry after a drought could make things interesting.
4. The triplets reunited?
In an effort to jumpstart a struggling offense, Lightning coach Jon Cooper reunited the triplets line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat that was so successful during their 2015 playoff run in their latest game, a 5-3 loss to Arizona. It's unclear whether they will begin tonight's game on the same line, but if not, it's worth watching throughout the game whether they do. The Blackhawks have been coming at opponents in waves lately, so Cooper could look to separate the three to distribute the scoring.
5. Take advantage on special teams.
The Lightning have racked up the fifth-most penalty minutes in the league, and own a bottom-10 penalty kill unit at 80.1 percent. The Blackhawks are the second-least penalized team, and have converted on 17.9 percent of their power plays, which sits at 16th. But they haven't scored one on the man advantage in five straight games, going 0-for-9 during that span. Here's a chance to change that.
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