NEW ORLEANS—Entering the second half of the regular season with a renewed focus was the prime objective of the Bulls (31-22) and in Tuesday night’s 96-87 win over the Hornets (19-35) at New Orleans Arena, for the most part, they accomplished the task.
It wasn’t pretty—wins rarely are with this blue-collar bunch—but with the return of veteran starting point guard Kirk Hinrich to the lineup, a balanced offensive effort and a stingy performance on the defensive end of the floor got the Bulls back to playing their trademark brand of basketball after a series of uneven outings in their previous few games.
The Bulls, led by the forward tandem of Duke products Carlos Boozer (17 points, 10 rebounds) and Luol Deng (20 points, five rebounds) didn’t appear to have an All-Star break hangover at the outset of the contest, as they scored the first six points of the contest before the hosts got on the board.
But the Hornets quickly recovered, as they exploited their guests turnover woes and trouble finishing around the basket, going on a 15-4 run, sparked by the backcourt of scorer Eric Gordon (20 points) and playmaker Greivis Vasquez (11 points, 10 assists).
The visitors bounced back with a 10-2 spurt of their own, as Hinrich, back in the lineup after missing seven consecutive games with an infection in his right elbow, ensured the team’s shot distribution was handled correctly.
[HIGHLIGHTS: Bulls 96, Hornets 87]
Along with All-Stars Deng and Joakim Noah (15 points, 17 rebounds, five assists), reserves Taj Gibson (four points, three rebounds) and Marco Belinelli (nine points, four assists), a former Hornet in his first game back in New Orleans since his arrival in Chicago, gave the Bulls a lift and at the conclusion of the opening period, they held a 26-21 advantage.
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau utilized his bench early in the second quarter—five reserves were on the court at the same time: Gibson, Belinelli, second-year swingman Jimmy Butler, backup point guard Nate Robinson and seldom-used veteran center Nazr Mohammed—and the second unit proved capable of maintaining the visitors’ cushion.
Mohammed, who had appeared to have fallen out of the rotation much earlier in the season, was immediately productive, knocking down shots from the high post on his first two trips down the court.
Gordon brought New Orleans back within close contact with his explosive scoring ability—buoyed by the second of two spectacular alley-oop dunks by rookie big man Anthony Davis, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and a Chicago native in his first game against his hometown team; Davis missed the Hornets’ win at the United Center due to a concussion—but the play of the wing duo of Butler and Deng kept the Bulls one step ahead of the home team.
At the intermission, the Bulls led, 47-43, following a late Hinrich jumper and an acrobatic traditional three-point play by Davis with 1.6 seconds left in the half.
After the break, Boozer was an offensive focal point for the visitors—as was getting to the foul line, as they had no first-half attempts from the charity stripe—as he and Noah, who dominated the glass, pounded the Hornets on the interior.
Hinrich continued to find the Bulls’ scorers in rhythm, particularly Boozer—starting backcourt mate Rip Hamilton became more of a factor on the offensive end, as well—and combined with more focus on the defensive end of the floor, the Bulls methodically built a double-digit lead, despite Davis showcasing his mid-range shooting ability.
New Orleans once again made a push to challenge the visitors, but before the Bulls unraveled—Noah picked up his fourth personal foul midway through the third quarter and Hinrich was assessed with a technical after arguing a foul call—they held off their hosts.
[VIDEO: Noah, Boozer on Bulls' win]
Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls were ahead, 74-68, as Deng and Boozer shouldered the offensive load late in the period.
At the outset of the fourth quarter, it was a battle of backup point guards, as Robinson and New Orleans’ similarly diminutive Brian Roberts went at it, with the Hornets narrowing the gap in the process to make it a close-knit affair.
But as Thibodeau started to reinsert his regulars, the Bulls began to create some separation, as Noah was a force in the paint and the defense grew more stifling against their young opponents, though the hosts were able to stay within general striking distance because of their guests’ continued ball-security issues.
However, with the likes of Boozer, Deng and Noah consistently coming up with timely buckets, the Bulls entered the game’s stretch run with all of the momentum, as they cleaned up on the defensive boards and limited the Hornets’ scoring opportunities.
But New Orleans didn't stop fighting and made it a two-possession game in the final minute before a Deng jumper virtually sealed the deal, ensuring that the Bulls began the second half of the campaign on a positive note, something needed going into their next contest, a Thursday-night matchup with the defending-champion Heat at the United Center.