Bulls' 'magic number' down to one after beating Pacers

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Bulls' 'magic number' down to one after beating Pacers

INDIANAPOLISBulls head coach Tom Thibodeau has talked incessantly about his team not skipping stepssince his tenure in Chicago began, but most recently, as a cautionary tale before the playoffsand not getting caught up in the race for home-court advantage throughout the postseason.

Well, it appeared the Bulls (49-16) heeded his warning, as they held off Central Division rival Indiana, 92--85 Wednesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, reducing their magic number to clinch the leagues top overall seed to just one game.

A steady dose of the inside tandem of Carlos Boozer (16 points and seven rebounds) and Joakim Noah (14 points and 14 rebounds) set the tone at the outset, as Boozer displayed his feathery touch and the energetic Noah was active and used his agility and high activity level to frustrate Pacers All-Star center Roy Hibbert.

For Indiana (42-24), veteran power forward David West (13 points and five rebounds) got off to a solid start, but that wasnt enough to prevent the visitors from creating some early separation.

All-Star point guard Derrick Rose (10 points and seven assists) didnt have a major impact, but in an abbreviated stint, the reigning league MVP showed some explosiveness on one move in particular, an acrobatic driving left-handed finish.

Despite reserve Darren Collison (six points and four assists), formerly the Pacers starting point guard, sparking the hosts toward the end of the period, the Bulls led, 32-24, after the opening quarter, as All-Star Luol Deng (nine points and eight rebounds) contributed with a strong all-around performance.

Lockdown defense by the Bench Mob, as well as Kyle Korvers (20 points) outside marksmanship and the blend of scoring and playmaking of C.J. Watson (five points and three assists), allowed the Bulls to further extend their edge.

Indiana didnt let things get completely out of hand, as they mustered enough of an effort , led by second-year guard Lance Stephenson (22 points)in his first NBA start, as leading scorer Danny Granger was sidelined due to a sore kneeto make sure the visitors didnt run away with the game in the first half.

The Bulls starters returned at approximately the periods midway point and were able to maintain both the double-digit spread and determined defensive effort. At the intermission, the Bulls held a 49-36 advantage, after Dengs attempted buzzer-beating three-pointer at the halftime whistle was ruled no good by the officials.

Chicago came out hot after the break, as Boozer and Noah resumed their early dominance, but behind West, the Pacers responded and cut the deficit to single digits.

Suddenly, with Indiana within striking distance, the contest began to resemble the defensive-minded dogfights in the first-round playoff series from a year ago, as the home crowdno longer as supportive of the guestsgot behind their team.

The Bulls defense prevented the Pacers from further closing the gap, as Indiana, with the exception of the fearless Stephenson, struggled to score near the end of the third quarter. While the Bulls also experienced one of their periodic offensive droughts, they still entered the final stanza with a 67-59 lead.

Chicagos Bench Mob, sparked by the high-energy play of Taj Gibson (10 points and three rebounds) and swingman Ronnie Brewer (four points and four assists), pushed the pace and got out to a quick start in the fourth quarter.

However, they were countered by a Pacers squad that lacked any fear of their opponent, stemming from the aforementioned playoff battle last season, and the young Stephenson continued to carry the offensive load.

Although the Bulls were plagued by ball-security issues, leading to transition baskets for Indiana. After Thibodeau sent back in a mix of his regularsRose got the opportunity for some extra work and hit a key floater before being replaced by Watson latebut it was Korvers shooting that ensured the visitors wouldnt falter down the stretch.

Solid execution and defense were able to hold off the Pacers, who went to an all-reserve lineup in the games waning moments, despite Stephenson continuing to pour in points on a career night.

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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