The Bulls finished their exhibition campaign in style, battling back from a lackluster first-half performance to make a huge surge after halftime, then hold off visiting Denver in the clutch to win, 94-89, Friday evening at the United Center, giving the squad an 8-0 mark in the preseason.
The run-and-gun Nuggets, even as first-year head coach Brian Shaw tries to implement more traditional half-court elements to his team’s offense, blitzed the Bulls at the outset of the contest, using transition play, athleticism and quickness to their advantage in the opening period.
After seeing their guests jump out to a 17-7 lead at the start of the game, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau called a timeout, and behind contributions from Derrick Rose (15 points, eight assists) and All-Star small forward Luol Deng (23 points, 12 rebounds), the hosts fought back to make it a close-knit affair. However, Rose’s exploits were matched by speedy point-guard counterpart Ty Lawson (11 points) and while the Bulls managed to close the gap, they still trailed, 28-21, after a quarter of play.
Things only got worse for the Bulls in the second quarter, as Denver’s reserves—including former Bulls fan favorite Nate Robinson, who signed with the Nuggets as a free agent over the summer—extended the visitors’ lead to double digits. Not even the high-energy play of backup big man Taj Gibson (10 points, eight rebounds) could bail out the Bulls, nor could the starting perimeter trio of Rose, Deng and shooting guard Jimmy Butler (13 points, seven rebounds) after Thibodeau reinserted them into the game.
Paced by Lawson (who didn’t play after halftime due to left-groin tightness) and the starting frontcourt of forwards Anthony Randolph (15 points) and J.J. Hickson (14 points), with Chicago native JaVale McGee (15 points) at center, hot-shooting Denver maintained its edge and at the intermission, the suddenly offensively-deficient, defensively-porous, turnover-prone Bulls were behind, 48-36, at the intermission, much to Thibodeau’s extremely apparent displeasure.
After the break, the Bulls attempted to get back into the contest, sparked by Rose’s determined drives to the basket, Carlos Boozer’s (24 points, 10 rebounds) quiet effectiveness and the wing tandem of Deng and Butler also making their collective presence felt.
By midway through the frame, the mission was accomplished, as the Bulls used a 14-2 run to seize control of the game, snatching the lead from the Nuggets and playing in a style much more familiar to their fans, subsequently enhancing the atmosphere at the United Center, as the partisan crowd responded to the improved effort on the court. After having trailed by as many as 19 points, the Bulls again looked like a well-oiled machine and as a result, they were up, 72-66, heading into the final stanza, putting their coach in much less of a frenzied state on the sidelines.
The remarkable in-game turnaround continued in the fourth quarter, as the Bulls gradually put more distance between themselves and the Nuggets. But Denver, with a backcourt of Robinson and 37-year-old Andre Miller, clawed its way back into the contest by virtue of an 8-0 run, making it a one-point affair entering heading down the stretch, prompting Thibodeau to bring back Rose and Deng, who joined the already-active pair of Boozer and Butler on the floor.
It remained a close-knit affair, as Miller knotted it up with 2:03 to go—the savvy veteran made a layup, took a charge and made another layup in one sequence—and not until a Boozer offensive rebound of a missed Rose triple led to the point guard finding the much-maligned power forward later in that same possession, then knocked down two free throws to give the Bulls a two-possession lead, 92-87, with 18.1 seconds on the clock, did the preservation of that unblemished preseason mark truly seem realistic.