Even without marquee attractions Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis — the two former No. 1 overall draft picks and Chicago natives were both sidelined with injuries, as the latter suffered a fractured left hand Sunday, missing his homecoming game for the second consecutive season — out of the lineup, Monday night’s game between the Bulls (7-9) and Pelicans (9-8) had plenty of entertainment value. A three-overtime affair in which neither team was willing to surrender finally ended with the Bulls, in their first game back at the United Center since leaving for the annual Circus Trip, falling, 131-128.
As usual, especially recently, All-Star small forward Luol Deng’s (game-high 37 points, eight rebounds, seven assists in a team-high 55 minutes) all-around play led the Bulls, who also received early contributions from veteran floor general Kirk Hinrich (13 points, 11 assists) to lead them out of the gates.
But despite solid team defense rendering the three-guard trio of starters Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon, along with early sub Tyreke Evans, relatively inefficient, the Pelicans held a slight advantage in the early going. However, stretch power forward Ryan Anderson (36 points, game-high 56 minutes), starting in place of the injured Davis, gave the Bulls’ defense another dimension to contend with, and at the conclusion of the opening period, they were on the wrong end of a 24-21 game.
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Reserves Taj Gibson (26 points, 14 rebounds, five blocked shots) and Mike Dunleavy Jr. (23 points, 6-for-10 three-point shooting, seven rebounds, five assists) provided a boost off the bench early in the second quarter, but Evans also found his rhythm, enabling the Pelicans to remain in front. But the Bulls’ persistent approach paid off and behind Gibson’s post game, they seized the lead midway through the frame.
With rookie swingman Tony Snell and Dunleavy each knocking down a pair of triples, the Bulls went into the intermission with a 56-50 edge, despite a late individual spurt by Pelicans center Jason Smith.
After the break, the Pelicans inched closer, and courtesy of an extended 16-3 run through the midway point of the third quarter, gradually regained the lead behind the play of the post tandem of Anderson and Smith, both skilled face-up players. But Deng, who was the Bulls’ primary source of offense in the period, kept them in the thick of things.
Deng received assistance in the form of Gibson’s energy, Hinrich’s toughness and Dunleavy’s torrid outside shooting to take back control of the game as the frame came to an end and heading into the final stanza, the Bulls once again led, 80-77.
It remained a close-knit affair at the outset of the fourth quarter, with the trio of Deng, Gibson and Dunleavy carrying the scoring load for the Bulls and the sharpshooting Anderson shouldering the burden for the Pelicans.
Heading into the contest’s stretch run, the Bulls’ trademark hustle — personified by Hinrich, Gibson and All-Star center Joakim Noah (19 points, 10 rebounds), who didn’t have a monster statistical line but provided plenty of intangibles and got better as the evening went on — was complemented by clutch shot-making. The back-and-forth tenor of the contest continued for the remainder of regulation, and after Dunleavy split a pair of attempts from the charity stripe to give the Bulls a two-point lead with 21.1 seconds remaining, a Holiday jumper tied the game at 102 apiece with 3.9 seconds to play. On the game’s final possession, the Bulls couldn’t execute precisely, leading to the extra session.
Gibson scored early in the overtime, notching a new career-high point total — eclipsing the mark he set in the team’s previous win, last Wednesday in Detroit — and a Deng layup, setting a new season-high himself, put the Bulls up, 109-106, with 2:03 left. Gibson then showed off his defensive presence, singlehandedly erasing Pelicans possessions with his shot-blocking prowess on two consecutive trips.
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The third time was a charm, however, as the Pelicans pushed the ball in transition off a Bulls missed attempt at making it a two-possession game. Gordon hit a fast-break three to tie the contest with 10.2 seconds on the clock, and on the final possession of the game’s fifth period, the Bulls couldn’t get off a shot, leading to a sixth.
The Pelicans struck first in the second overtime, jumping out to a five-point lead after a Holiday alley-oop to Al-Farouq Aminu, who came alive as a scorer in the frame, creating a 118-113 deficit with 1:57 to go, seemingly putting the visitors in position to seal the deal. But the Bulls would crawl their way back into the game, and after Hinrich drew a charging foul, Deng made a layup with 4.7 seconds left and the Pelicans failed to convert on their final possession, sending the contest, tied at 122 apiece, into a third overtime.
A thunderous Noah dunk gave the Bulls a three-point lead in third extra session, but despite inspired defensive efforts on separate possessions by both Gibson and Noah against the Pelicans’ dangerous guards, an Anderson triple off a pick-and-roll defensive switch gave the visitors a 127-126 lead with 1:08 to play. After a Gordon turnover — and another interminable video replay that saw the Bulls retain possession on a close out-of-bounds call — reserve sharpshooter Anthony Morrow made one out of two free throws with 8.5 seconds left, putting the Pelicans up by two.
Given another opportunity, the Bulls delivered, as Noah made a jump hook with 4.5 seconds remaining to knot it up at 128. But the Pelicans’ out of bounds play was also on the money, as Holiday caught the ball on the move, made a hard move to the basket and converted a three-point play, drawing contact from Gibson, making a tough layup and the subsequent foul shot.
With 2.6 seconds left, the Bulls had a final chance to tie the contest, but a Dunleavy long-range jumper was off the mark, mercifully ending the marathon affair. The two days before Thursday’s primetime matchup with the defending-champion Heat will be sorely needed, especially after losing six out of seven games.