Bulls survive late scare, beat Orlando

Bulls survive late scare, beat Orlando
January 3, 2013, 2:34 am
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A struggling, short-handed Bulls (17-13) team put together one of its more gutsy performances of the season Wednesday night at the Amway Center, as Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson, who replaced Joakim Noah in the starting lineup, had season-best outings to lead them to a 96-94 victory over the Magic (12-20). After surrendering an 18-point third-quarter lead, the Bulls defense, always its trademark, came up big at the end to preserve the win, but it took two clutch free throws from Luol Deng to ensure the start of the teams two-game Florida road trip got off to a good start.
Torrid shooting from the Magic to start the game put the Bulls on their heels to start the contest, but behind aggressive play from Boozer (31 points, 11 rebounds) in the early going, the visitors stayed within close contact of their hosts. Boozers strength and experience helped him take advantage of Orlandos young big menveteran Glen Big Baby Davis was sidelined due to injuryand with Noah absent because of flu-like symptoms, the offensive production of the much-maligned power forward was necessary.
However, the Magic stayed hot, as the likes of rookie Andrew Nicholson, second-year big man Nikola Vucevic (20 points, 12 rebounds), leading scorer Arron Afflalo (19 points) and floor general Jameer Nelson (32 points), back from injury, led the way. But the Bulls continued to battle, as Luol Deng (23 points) complemented Boozer as a scorer, Taj Gibson (21 points, 10 rebounds, four blocked shots), starting in place of Noah, helped with the interior duties and the veteran backcourt of Kirk Hinrich (eight assists) and Rip Hamilton (nine assists) set the table for their teammates, all aiding the guests in seizing a 29-28 lead after a quarter of play.
The game remained a close-knit affair early in the second quarter, albeit at a slower pace and with more emphasis on the defensive end, which suited the Bulls. Gibson raised his level of play, as he was very active on the interior, a force on the glass and aggressive on offense, efficiently utilizing his extended playing time and in turn, keeping the Bulls afloat during a stretch in which both teams experienced a significant drop-off in shooting efficiency after red-hot opening periods.
For the Magic, Afflalo started to get hot, keeping Orlando within striking distance, but he was countered by instant-offense scorer Nate Robinson, who knocked down a pair of triples following an 0-for-3 start, while Hinrich and Boozer also got into the act as the quarter waned on. Although the pesky hosts refused to go away, the Bulls appeared to have control of the contest and at the intermission, the visitors held a 54-46 advantage.
After the break, Orlando tried to cut into the deficit behind Nelsons outside marksmanship, but the frontcourt trio of Gibson, Boozer and Deng ensured that the Bulls maintained some breathing room, and then extend the lead to double digits. Gibson, in particular, was outstanding for the visitors, as he dominated the paint on both ends of the floor, rising to the occasion in Noahs absence and getting the best of a generally hard-playing Magic frontline, including Vucevic, his college teammate at USC, who was coming off a team-record 29-rebound outing in a New Years Eve overtime loss to the defending-champion Heat, the Bulls next opponent.
Not to be overlooked was Dengs outside shooting and determined defense against Afflalo, as well as Boozers inside presence, both of which contributed to a comfortable winning margin, though one that was partially diminished after Hinrich picked up his fourth foul, robbing the visitors of one of their chief distributors, even as Hamilton continued to play pass-first basketball. A 9-0 Magic run briefly made it a single-digit game again, but the Bulls recovered and heading into the final stanza, they were ahead, 82-71.
At the outset of the fourth quarter, Orlando kept threatening to make it a tight game, but a mix of solid defense, timely offense and the Magic failing to capitalize on opportunities allowed the Bulls to keep a gap between the two squads. However, the hosts gradually inched closer and by the midway mark of the period, the Bulls lead, which had reached as high as 18 the previous quarter, had been sliced down to two, 86-84, with 5:20 to go, as Vucevic was a major factor.
A subsequent 8-0 Bulls run with Hamilton, previously on a minutes limit after returning from a foot injury, in the game heading into its stretch run briefly made it a double-digit game again, but it didnt last, as the Magic feverishly fought back late, with three-pointers from sharpshooter J.J. Redick and Afflalo sandwiched around a Vucevic dunk to make it a 94-92 contest. But Gibson blocked a Nelson layup attempt with 11.3 seconds left and after a timeout, Nelson missed a jumper to tie the game, Deng corralled the rebound and sealed the deal with a pair of free throws with 4.2 seconds on the clock.