CHARLOTTE — Two teams playing for postseason seeding in their shared regular-season finale resulted in an ugly, hard-fought evening of basketball Wednesday night at Time Warner Cable Arena, with the Bulls (48-34) coming out on the wrong side of a 91-86 game, in overtime, against the Bobcats (43-39) heading into their first playoff game Sunday in Chicago.
As expected, the contest was competitive from the outset, with the forward tandem of Duke products Carlos Boozer (14 points, 11 rebounds) and Mike Dunleavy Jr. (12 points, seven rebounds) helping the Bulls build a slim cushion. The defensive-minded, scoring-challenged Bobcats used a balance attack to stay within striking distance, despite star big man Al Jefferson (10 points, 18 rebounds) being limited offensively early on.
At the conclusion of the opening period, the Bulls held a 21-16 advantage.
D.J. Augustin (17 points), Charlotte’s 2009 first-round draft pick, was a factor in the Bulls extending their lead to double digits in the second quarter. However, the Bobcats began to chip away at the deficit, behind Jefferson being an interior force and point guard Kemba Walker’s (22 points, eight assists, seven rebounds) blend of playmaking and scoring, as well as the energetic play of rookie Cody Zeller.
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Joakim Noah (14 points, 13 rebounds, six assists) began to get his all-around game in gear, but even the All-Star center couldn’t prevent a 20-6 Bobcats’ run to close the first half. At the intermission, the Bulls trailed, 43-39, as Jefferson and Walker led the way.
After the break, the grind-it-out nature of the game persisted. Boozer and Jimmy Butler (12 points, four rebounds, four assists) helped the Bulls keep things close and eventually, seize the lead in the third quarter, despite contributions from Bobcats wings Gerald Henderson Jr. and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. That would be short-lived, however, as Charlotte rallied, going on a 7-0 run, propelled by their rebounding advantage, with Jefferson, in particular, leading the effort on the glass, with backup big man Bismack Biyombo providing assistance in the paint after the go-to scorer was briefly sidelined by an ankle injury.
But the Bulls remained resilient and heading into the final stanza, they led, 60-59.
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The physical, close-knit nature of the affair didn’t change in the fourth quarter continued, with scoring at a premium for both teams. The point-guard duo of Augustin and Kirk Hinrich (11 points, six assists) made clutch shots late to keep the Bulls afloat, though the Bobcats, propelled by the scoring of reserve swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts (13 points), wouldn’t stop pushing.
A vicious Henderson dunk with 2:45 to play cut it to a one-point game, but on the subsequent possession, Augustin made a floater to give the Bulls an 80-77 lead. It continued to be a back-and-forth game down the stretch and after Hinrich fouled Walker with 35.9 seconds remaining — Jefferson had previously split a pair of attempts at the charity stripe to cut the lead to two points — not only did the veteran floor general foul out, but Charlotte tied the game at 80 apiece.
Gibson would miss a jumper on the next trip and Walker did the same at the final buzzer, sending the contest into an extra session.
Two Walker foul shots were the only points for the period’s two-and-a-half minutes until Henderson jumper gave the Bobcats some separation, 84-80, prompting a timeout from Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. While it didn’t help the offense immediately, a reversal of an out-of-bounds call initially favoring Charlotte — the officiating was uneven all evening — gave the Bulls some life, but Dunleavy, usually an excellent free-throw shooter, only hit one of two from the stripe, followed by a Walker layup, plus the foul, with 1:15 remaining, giving the Bobcats an 86-81 lead after he missed the ensuing foul shot.
The Bulls sandwiched two timeouts between a Walker steal and fast-break layup, but the deficit was now too large to overcome with just 1:01 remaining. Back-to-back Bulls turnovers ensured that would be the case, putting the regular season in the rear-view window, albeit on a disappointing note.