Bulls' defense leads them to victory over Hawks

Bulls' defense leads them to victory over Hawks
January 4, 2014, 9:15 pm
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It was everything one has come to expect—defensive-oriented, predicated upon rebounding and with long stretches of sloppy offensive basketball—but the Bulls’ (14-18) 91-84 win over the Hawks (18-16) Saturday night at the United Center represented the identity the team has forged in recent seasons in all of its workmanlike glory.

Without durable power forward Carlos Boozer, who missed his first game of the season with a sore right knee, the Bulls still managed to build a slim cushion in the opening period behind the play of his replacement, Taj Gibson (10 points, 12 rebounds, three blocked shots), and All-Star small forward Luol Deng (17 points, 11 rebounds, three steals).

Ex-Bull Kyle Korver’s record streak of consecutive games with a made three-pointer was extended 103 straight contests in the early going, but the Bulls’ dominance on the boards—including contributions from veteran backup center Nazr Mohammed—and continued unselfishness on offense kept Atlanta at bay. Despite a buzzer-beating layup from Hawks sixth man Lou Williams to end the frame, the Bulls held a 26-18 lead after a quarter of play.

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The Bulls maintained their comfortable advantage through balanced scoring, as the likes of Jimmy Butler (11 points, five steals) and the reserve duo of Mike Dunleavy Jr. (20 points) and D.J. Augustin (11 points, seven assists) provided timely offense. For the Hawks, while underrated forward Paul Millsap (16 points, 12 rebounds) and speedy point guard Jeff Teague (16 points, six assists) were effective, Atlanta’s firepower couldn’t be considered overwhelming, as the recent season-ending injury to big man Al Horford has made the team—one of the NBA’s surprises early in the campaign, as one of the few squads in the Eastern Conference with a winning record—even more reliant on perimeter shooting.

The first half ended on an entertaining exchange: Korver hit a corner triple with 2.9 seconds remaining in the period, followed by Deng answering with a heave from midcourt at the halftime buzzer to give the Bulls a 50-45 edge at the intermission.

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After the break, the Bulls maintained their slight edge, though the Hawks, with role players like DeMarre Carroll and Pero Antic logging significant minutes, remained right on their heels. Deng, while not at his most efficient shooting the ball, emerged as the Bulls’ offensive focal point, while Gibson’s rugged interior play was another catalyst and All-Star center Joakim Noah’s (10 points, 12 rebounds, five blocks) defensive presence enabled him to make an impact on the contest.

Atlanta continued to make inroads, however, and kept trimming the gap, but heading into the final stanza, the score was 67-64 in the Bulls’ favor, as the bench tandem of Mohammed and Augustin—with his blend of scoring and playmaking providing its usual change of pace—gave them a boost late in the frame.

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It remained a close-knit affair in the fourth quarter, but the Bulls stayed afloat behind the stellar shooting performance of Dunleavy, who even outshined Korver, his predecessor as the team’s designated marksman. The frontcourt trio of Deng, Gibson and Noah also played a part with their interior play, but the Hawks continued to exhibit a great deal of fight, with Teague, Millsap and reserve forward Mike Scott helping the visitors stay within striking distance.

Entering the game’s stretch run, Atlanta had numerous opportunities to trim what had become a two-possession game, but the Bulls’ trademark defense and rebounding prowess prevented the Hawks from getting quality shot attempts late. A pair of Deng free throws with 8.8 seconds remaining sealed the deal once and for all, giving the Bulls two consecutive wins, both at home.