ATLANTA — Tuesday night’s 107-103 win over the reeling, injury-riddled Hawks at Philips Arena was far from a thing of beauty for fans to watch, but to the Bulls, it’s symbolic of how far they’ve come.
Remember earlier this season, with or without the likes of Derrick Rose or Luol Deng in the lineup? The Bulls were losing games they were supposed to win, not making plays down the stretch and playing down to inferior competition in general.
These days, it’s a different story. For instance, Kirk Hinrich suffered through a 3-for-12 shooting performance, but his clutch play — from steals on crucial Atlanta possessions, to clutch free throws and of course, the phantom foul he drew on a three-point attempt at the end of the shot clock in the fourth quarter — was a major reason the Bulls prevailed Tuesday.
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“You’ve got to do that. There’s going to be games where you don’t shoot the ball well. I felt like I had some good looks in the first half,” the veteran floor general said, before explaining how he drew the aforementioned foul. “I knew I would have let it go with the normal release, he was going to block it. The clock was down. It was the only option I had.”
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, as usual, understood that Hinrich’s value went far beyond his 14 points.
“Those were big free throws. Obviously the three that he made, that was huge. To me, at the end of the game, particularly one in which we didn’t play great, but doing whatever’s necessary to win is the important thing,” he said. “We’ve got to scratch them out. That’s what we have to do.”
“We didn’t shoot the ball great obviously, but I thought the toughness to fight out of the hole, that was one thing,” the coach went on to explain. “There were a lot of tough plays, some hustle plays, that I thought made all the difference in the world.”
All-Star center Joakim Noah, who had 20 points and 12 rebounds on his 29th birthday, chimed in: “’Kirky’ was huge. He hit big free throws, steals. That was huge for this team. He just brings the energy on the defensive end and makes sure everybody’s in the right spot on offense, and he’s playing really confident, good basketball for us.
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Mike Dunleavy Jr., who had 22 points, eight rebounds and four assists in 47 minutes and 51 seconds, added: “He made some great plays, hit some free throws for us. He’s always going to play great defense for us, so having a guy like that’s great.”
“We got off to a bad start. They put us in a hole. We fought out of it. We just had to battle all game. We just couldn’t get up to that eight, 10, 12-point range we were hoping for, but at the end of the day, we got the win. That’s the main thing that matters,” he continued. ”There’s a lot of games we would have lost earlier in the year that we won in the last 20 or 30 games. We were losing to some pretty bad teams, we were losing at home, we were losing every which way. We’ve figured out a way in the last 30 games or so to just hang in there and get wins, and hopefully we continue doing that.”
Thibodeau wasn’t completely pleased with his team’s performance — the coach quipped, “What defense?” in response to a reporter’s question—on the evening, however.
“We dodged a bullet with the start of the game and that’s normally not like us, so we’ve got to correct that,” he explained. “Being ready for the speed and intensity of the game to start off is important, and I thought we were slow.”
Still, the coach acknowledged that they finished off the night in the fashion intended, saying, “The end game is getting a win and the important thing for us is to understand what we’re doing well, and what we have to correct and get ready for the next one.”
Hinrich concurred: “We’ll take this one. I feel like we kind of stole it. Didn’t get off to a good start, kind of grinded out the whole game and it’s a good win.”
And just in case you were wondering, the Bulls weren’t at all sympathetic to the short-handed Hawks — Atlanta had nine bodies in uniform, including center Dexter Pittman, a Bulls’ training-camp invite on a 10-day contract — having frequently been in similar situations themselves.
“It’s not about them. It’s about us. We have injuries, too. So we’re just trying to find a way,” Noah said. “I think they really wanted that game today and we really wanted that game, too. It wasn’t pretty at times, but I’m just happy we were able to come out with the win.”