It wasn’t a picture-perfect effort by any means, but despite only shooting 36 percent from the field and permitting a young, short-handed team to hang around all night, the Bulls (6-3) held off Charlotte (5-6), 86-81, Monday night at the United Center, for their fifth consecutive victory.
Behind a strong start by shooting guard Jimmy Butler (14 points, five rebounds), the Bulls jumped out to a slight edge in the early going, though the much-improved Bobcats, led by the young backcourt of Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson (16 points, eight rebounds, six assists), kept things within striking distance. All-Star small forward Luol Deng (21 points, eight rebounds) also had a big opening period, culminated by him knocking down a jumper to beat the first-quarter buzzer, giving the Bulls a 26-21 lead.
While Mike Dunleavy Jr.’s improved three-point stroke propelled the Bulls at the outset of the second quarter, Charlotte stayed close, as rookie big man Cody Zeller’s high activity level and production from fellow reserves like backup point guard Ramon Sessions and undersized post player Jeff Adrien helped the feisty young squad, playing without injured go-to scorer Al Jefferson, keep it a close-knit affair.
With the likes of Josh McRoberts, starting in place of injured go-to scorer Al Jefferson, and backup swingman Jeff Taylor (20 points) also chipping in, the Bobcats managed to gradually overtake the Bulls, who surprisingly trailed at the intermission, 44-40, mostly courtesy of their poor shooting and sloppy ball security.
After the break, the wing tandem of Butler and Deng again set the tone offensively, and on the defensive end of the floor, the Bulls buckled down, which helped them regain the lead. Carlos Boozer’s (12 points, 17 rebounds) rebounding was also a factor, but he struggled as a scorer, as did teammates Derrick Rose (12 points on 4-for-13 shooting, five assists) and Joakim Noah (11 points, seven rebounds), enabling the Bobcats, led offensively by Taylor, to remain in close contact and heading into the final stanza, the Bulls clung to a fragile 62-59 advantage.
Butler briefly leaving the contest because of a right-toe injury certainly didn’t help matters, as the plucky Bobcats continued to fight and neither team showed any type of offensive proficiency, but the Bulls’ starting backcourt returned for the game’s stretch run, with veteran backup Kirk Hinrich (seven assists, two blocked shots) serving as floor general in a three-guard set. It was an interior player, however, who came up big, as Boozer’s monster night on the boards endured, but was accompanied by timely scoring and passing late, which allowed the Bulls to maintain their slim cushion.
Boozer and Taylor traded buckets in the late going and after a Rose floater with 1:46 to go gave the Bulls a four-point lead, a Henderson triple cut it to a one-point game with 1:27 left. But Rose wasn’t done yet, as the seas parted for him on a drive, giving him an easy path for a left-handed layup with 1:07 remaining to make it 82-79 in the Bulls’ favor.
After a pair of Henderson free throws with under a minute to play, the Bulls used a full possession, then Rose found Deng at the end of the shot clock for a triple with 27.1 on the clock to seal the deal and keep the winning streak intact. It wasn't an ideal performance to head into the annual "Circus Trip" on, as the team played down to its competition, Rose reverting to his previous early-season struggles and a lackluster overall effort, particularly on the offensive end, but at the end of an 82-game campaign, the evening will go down as a win in the standings.