Thibodeau: Good to get a win, the road is going to get tougher
SALT LAKE CITY — A night after the worst loss of the Tom Thibodeau era, the Bulls (30-20) responded with a stellar first-half performance and while they lost momentum after halftime, they hung on to defeat Utah (28-23), 93-89, Friday night at Energy Solutions Arena.
Despite a monster outing from Jazz big man Al Jefferson (32 points, 13 rebounds), the Bulls’ resiliency came to the forefront late in the contest and behind clutch play from Carlos Boozer (19 points, five rebounds) — the most hated man in the building — they hung on to finish their six-game road trip 3-3 before returning to Chicago.
Early on, Rip Hamilton (six points, three assists) and Boozer — making his second appearance in Utah since coming to the Bulls; he was roundly booed during player introductions and every time he touched the ball before picking up two early fouls — carried the offensive load for the visitors.
The Jazz relied on the interior duo of Jefferson and Paul Millsap (21 points) — Boozer’s replacement and former understudy, respectively — and took a slight edge over their guests.
After a slow start, All-Star center Joakim Noah (12 points, 11 rebounds) began to find his rhythm and with Nate Robinson’s (18 points, nine assists) unselfish playmaking ensuring that the likes of All-Star Luol Deng (15 points, 10 rebounds) and Taj Gibson (14 points, eight rebounds) — after replacing Boozer, the backup big man provided a nice spark off the bench — got easy opportunities.
At the conclusion of the first quarter, the Bulls held a 31-27 advantage, mostly by virtue of efficient 61.9 percent shooting from the field, though their trademark defense still wasn’t up to the level enjoyed prior to their previous two, atypical outings.
Robinson shifted into scoring mode at the outset of the second quarter — the diminutive point guard hit a tough fadeaway to beat the shot clock, then back-to-back triples, all in the first two minutes of the period — and his rapid-fire instant offense gave the Bulls a double-digit cushion.
Marco Belinelli, back in the lineup after missing Thursday’s game with a right-ankle injury suffered Monday in Indiana, was effective offensively in his return to action, while Boozer quieted his former supporters with his usual blend of mid-range shooting and high-post passing and Gibson was a force on both ends of the floor.
Utah’s young big-man tandem of Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter had their individual moments, but the Jazz simply couldn’t make much headway, as the visitors maintained their comfortable winning margin as the half wound down.
At the intermission, the Bulls, who continued to shoot a gaudy percentage, led their hosts, 58-50.
After the break, the Jazz fought back, cutting into the deficit and making it a tight-knit affair behind the combination of Jefferson and Millsap, with well-traveled guard Randy Foye also making an impact.
Robinson was the Bulls’ saving grace in the third quarter, as the fill-in starter and last week’s Eastern Conference player of the week did it all, from rebounding and hitting long-distance jumpers to finishing in the lane and setting up his teammates — and even picking up a technical foul for barking at an official after a non-call following being bumped by a defender — helping the visitors cling to their tenuous lead.
For Utah, Jefferson’s polished low-post repertoire and Millsap’s skilled power game led the way and after gradually chipping away for the entire period, the Jazz eventually tied the game in its waning moments.
Heading into the final stanza, the score was knotted up at 69 apiece, with the momentum clearly going the way of the hosts and the visitors seemingly suffering from a lack of energy.
Rookie point guard Marquis Teague started the fourth quarter, giving Robinson his first breather of the game, and during that time, Utah seized its first lead of the evening, buoyed by — who else? — Jefferson, who was giving a clinic on the block, as well as knocking down mid-range jumpers and rebounding at a high level.
While the Bulls certainly weren’t helped by the officiating — through three quarters of play, they shot six free throws; Utah attempted 16 — turnovers and transition defense also became issues for them, as the deeper Jazz capitalized on easy opportunities, both on fast breaks and layups against the visitors’ vaunted set defense.
To compound matters, Boozer was hit with a technical foul after not receiving a call on a drive, much to the crowd’s delight, but heading into the game’s stretch run, the Bulls somehow managed to keep things close, even with their offensive struggles and lethargic play.
But Boozer stepped up as the Bulls’ go-to guy late and delivered by either making big shots or getting to the line to ensure that his return to Utah was a successful one.