Apparently the cure to what ailed the Bulls (43-13) during their two-game losing streak was playing an opponent they had some animus for, as the team with the NBAs best record got back to their winning ways Thursday evening with a 93-86 win over the Celtics (30-24) at the United Center.
Matching up with surging Boston might not have been an ideal bounce-back game, but a strong second-half defensive performance and a big night from All-Star Luol Deng (26 points, six rebounds) enabled the Bulls to survive a late scare from the Celtics to get their first win of April.
Without Derrick Rose for the 12th consecutive game, the Bulls turned to the other half of the starting backcourt they expected at the seasons outset, Rip Hamilton (nine points in 20 minutes), in the early going and received mixed results. Hamilton was active and showed some defensive versatility in guarding Celtics All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo (10 points, 12 assists), but was clearly rusty and couldnt find a rhythm.
Behind Rondos top-notch playmaking ability and fellow All-Star Paul Pierces (22 points, eight rebounds, four assists) scoring prowess, Boston gained a slight edge early in the opening period, as the Bulls tried to counter with the inside duo of Joakim Noah (17 points, nine rebounds) and Carlos Boozer (12 points, 14 rebounds), which proved effective on the glass. At the conclusion of a quarter of play, the Bulls trailed, 22-18, mostly due to mediocre marksmanship from the field.
A battle of both teams reserves including Celtics sharpshooter Ray Allen (14 points), who came off the bench for emerging second-year guard Avery Bradley didnt yield much for the Bulls, although Deng got his offense going, as the primary scorer when paired with the Bench Mob. The hosts defense clamped down and limited the visitors offense, but still struggled to find point production of their own.
However, role-playing Celtics like Brandon Bass (15 points, five rebounds) began to exploit scoring opportunities, while Rondos playmaking and Kevin Garnetts (12 points, 14 rebounds) all-around abilities helped Boston open up a double-digit lead late in the period. Despite C.J. Watson (15 points, eight assists) providing an offensive boost, the Bulls went into the intermission facing a 49-38 deficit, as Pierce again heated up late in the half.
A 6-0 Bulls run immediately after the break brought the Bulls within striking distance, as the home team started to get easier scoring opportunities through solid ball movement and aggressive penetration from the likes of Watson.
The hosts continued to plug away and reduced the deficit, buoyed by Noahs frenetic energy the charismatic center, known for being an irritant, drew an offensive foul on Garnett, which led to a subsequent technical from the veteran, who graduated from high school in the Windy City and the versatile Dengs hustle play.
But it was Watson who truly sparked the Bulls, as he tied the game, then gave his squad its first lead since the opening period with three-pointers on consecutive possessions. With the United Center crowd in a frenzied state, the Bulls headed into the games final frame with a 67-66 advantage.
Deng, again on the floor with the Bench Mob, handled both playmaking and scoring duties not to mention defense, as he was tasked with guarding Pierce and was the primary reason the Bulls built a slim cushion early in the fourth quarter, though timely scoring from Taj Gibson and John Lucas III also helped the cause.
The hosts survived a flurry of scoring from both Garnett and Bass and with Deng continuing to carry them offensively, entered the contests stretch run with some breathing room.
From contested pull-up jumpers and fast-break layups to offensive rebounds and creating off the dribble for his teammates, Deng put his All-Star skill set on full display and saved his best for last, with lockdown defense on Pierce, clutch shots and setting up Boozer for a dunk to give the Bulls a 10-point lead with under two minutes remaining.
Boston, however, wasnt quite finished putting up a fight and after an Allen jumper originally ruled a triple, then reversed after video review cut it to a five-point game with 42.3 seconds left, but the Bulls were able to endure the attempted comeback.