The post-Luol Deng era got off to an impressive start Tuesday night in Chicago, as the Bulls knocked off the Phoenix Suns, 92-87, at the United Center.
Earlier in the day the Bulls announced they had traded forward Luol Deng in exchange for Andrew Bynum’s contract and three draft picks. The move will save the franchise more than $20 million – they waived Bynum’s contract and are now under the luxury tax threshold – but was expected to hurt the current team in the short-term. And while the Bulls undoubtedly are worse off without the nine-year veteran Deng, it didn’t show on this night.
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Kirk Hinrich (nine points, three assists, two blocks) hit a clutch 3-pointer with two minutes to play and the Bulls forced the Suns into back-to-back turnovers in the final minute to hang on in the win. The Suns, who came into tonight averaging 103 points, shot just 40 percent in the loss, while Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson powered a Carlos Boozer-less frontcourt in the victory.
Taj Gibson (19 points, 10 rebounds) and Jimmy Butler (13 points, five rebounds, four steals) got the Bulls going in the first quarter, scoring a combined 17 of the Bulls’ 27 points on 7-for-12 shooting in the quarter. Goran Dragic (21 points, two assists) paced the Suns with seven points in the quarter while Gerald Green, starting in place of Eric Bledsoe, tallied five points. Chicago played a crisp quarter throughout, committing just one turnover and one personal foul, while the Suns matched the effort with their usual up-tempo pace.
Even without their leading scorer in Deng, the Bulls kept pace with the Suns on offense in the rest of the first half. Thibodeau’s group shot better than 47 percent from the field, behind 11 first-half points from Noah (14 points, 16 rebounds, six assists) and 10 from Butler. DJ Augustin (13 points, nine assists) keyed the offense in the second quarter, scoring eight points and handing out four assists in the stanza.
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After the Suns used a 16-4 run to take a 46-42 lead, buckets from Butler, Noah and a 3-pointer from Hinrich – two of which were assisted by Augustin – gave the Bulls a 7-0 run to close the half and take a 49-46 lead. Much of that run came with Hinrich and Augustin both on the court, something Thibodeau said before the game he’d like to utilize more following the Deng deal. The Bulls also held a steep 26-15 advantage on the boards, thanks to Noah’s 11 rebounds in the half. He also had nine points, three assists and a block in 16 efficient minutes.
Green got hot from deep, hitting a pair of 3-pointers to lead the Suns with 12 points before halftime.
Four minutes into the third quarter, Mike Dunleavy took a spill coming off a screen near the baseline and came up writhing in pain, holding his right elbow. He was able to walk off the court and made his way to the Bulls’ locker room shortly after. He returned to the bench later in the period and played most of the fourth quarter. Tony Snell (12 points, four rebounds) entered the game in Dunleavy’s place and knocked down a long two-pointer on the first possession down to give the Bulls a 53-48 lead. It was part of an 8-2 run to start the quarter that saw the Bulls lead by as many as nine points.
Dragic kept the Suns in it with a nine-point quarter of his own, but the Bulls’ stifling defense held Phoenix to 30 percent shooting in the quarter to extend the lead to 70-63 entering the fourth quarter.
Snell gave the Bulls some breathing room again in the fourth quarter with a pair of 3-pointers that extended the lead to 78-65 in the opening minutes, while the Suns’ cold shooting persisted. Later in the quarter Noah, who finished with six assists, found cutters on back-to-back possessions to push the lead back out to 12, 82-70.
A Channing Frye 3-pointer – the Suns were just 6-for-23 from beyond the arc – and Dragic layup brought the Suns within four, 84-80, with less than four minutes to play. Augustin and Miles Plumlee (11 points, seven rebounds, two blocks) traded free throws, and Hinrich’s 3-pointer with two minutes to play extended the lead to seven and put the game out of reach.