Depleted Bulls grind out win over Hawks

Depleted Bulls grind out win over Hawks
February 2, 2013, 9:00 pm
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ATLANTA — Playing a back-to-back after a late-night flight from New York, in the wake of a tough loss in which many of the players had logged heavy minutes, on paper, it would seem that the odds were stacked against the Bulls (29-18) in their Saturday night matchup with the Hawks (26-20) at Philips Arena.

But basketball isn’t played on paper and in a masterfully-played affair, the Bulls played small, smart and hard throughout the evening to win a 93-76 affair behind monster performances from Taj Gibson (19 points, 19 rebounds, three blocked shots) and All-Star Luol Deng (25 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, four steals, two blocks), despite the absences of injured starters Kirk Hinrich, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer.

The visitors, who began the contest with a small lineup — Jimmy Butler (16 points, 10 rebounds), Nate Robinson (20 points, eight assists) and Gibson joined regulars Rip Hamilton and Deng — were fortunate to play against an undersized Hawks team.

Gibson, who started at center against former All-Star Al Horford (14 points, 12 rebounds), scored the game’s first five points, helping the Bulls build an early cushion with assistance from Deng on the glass, Robinson’s playmaking and Butler’s energy.

Josh Smith (19 points, 13 rebounds), seemingly a perennial All-Star snub, used his size advantage over Deng, to keep the hosts in the hunt, despite Butler’s above-the-rim finishes powering their guests.

As the opening period waned on, Deng found his offensive rhythm, helping the visitors again create some separation and after a quarter of play, the Bulls held a 24-17 advantage, following backup forward Ivan Johnson’s — the Hawks reserve later got a technical foul for knocking down Butler — uncontested push and vicious left-handed dunk over Gibson with 0.9 seconds left in the frame.

At the outset of the second period, rookie point guard Marquis Teague — his older brother, starting Hawks point guard Jeff Teague (16 points), left the contest in the first quarter with a hip contusion, but later returned — and seldom-used reserve forward Vladimir Radmanovic, who has an ailing back, were in the visitors’ lineup, illustrating the current state of the Bulls’ depth.

Radmanovic, a Hawk as of last season, didn’t make an immediate impact in his short stint against his former teammates, while the younger Teague experienced a moment that undoubtedly had run through his mind on countless occasions when he was matched up with Jeff, who drilled a triple shortly after returning to the contest before Marquis exited the game.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau went away from stealing minutes with deep reserves and settled on his quintet of ironmen from the Brooklyn loss — the game’s starters, minus Hamilton, who was replaced by backup shooting guard Marco Belinelli, used as primary ballhandler alongside Robinson — to keep his team’s tenuous lead intact.

The game evolved into a tight-knit affair with Horford and Smith’s work on the interior carrying the hosts and Deng shouldering the offensive load for the Bulls, but with sloppy play and ball-security issues plaguing the visitors late in the half, they went into the intermission facing a 44-43 deficit in a defensive-oriented battle.

After the break, the scoring of Robinson and Butler helped the Bulls not only regain the lead, but once again build a slim cushion by playing the low-turnover brand of basketball that Thibodeau prefers and faring better on the boards than they did the previous evening, despite not shooting a high percentage from the field.

Despite being short-handed and undersized, the Bulls favorably competed on the glass, had a knack for making timely buckets and utilized possessions wisely, as they committed only one turnover in the third quarter.

The Bulls’ mentality could be summed up one possession late in the period: Hamilton missed a three-point attempt and tracked down his own rebound, leading to Robinson missing a triple of his own, Deng corralling the rebound, missing a putback layup and Gibson tipping in the miss, prompting the entire visiting bench to applaud the effort.

By virtue of their toughness, focus and discipline, the Bulls headed into the final stanza with a 69-60 lead.

The visitors gradually built a double-digit lead early in the fourth quarter, as yeoman-like performances on the boards by the frontcourt trio of Butler, Gibson and Deng, each of whom ended up with a double-double on the evening.

Keeping their foot on the gas, the Bulls and the aforementioned quintet of players Thibodeau rode continued to play with intensity, refusing to let the Hawks get back into the contest, as their trademark defense and selfless offense, as well as clutch shooting and relentless rebounding, particularly on the offensive end of the floor, had the guests rolling.

After another trip featuring multiple offensive rebounds, a Deng fadeaway jumper with under three minutes remaining in the game prompted a mass exodus of Hawks fans; many had begun to trickle out, but if that shot didn’t do the trick, a Robinson triple with 1:37 to play signaled to the crowd that a comeback was not only improbable, but impossible.

Fittingly, Thibodeau kept the group that had been so successful on the floor until the final buzzer because after all, they earned it.