Bulls survive late scare, beat Orlando

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Bulls survive late scare, beat Orlando

A struggling, short-handed Bulls (17-13) team put together one of its more gutsy performances of the season Wednesday night at the Amway Center, as Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson, who replaced Joakim Noah in the starting lineup, had season-best outings to lead them to a 96-94 victory over the Magic (12-20). After surrendering an 18-point third-quarter lead, the Bulls defense, always its trademark, came up big at the end to preserve the win, but it took two clutch free throws from Luol Deng to ensure the start of the teams two-game Florida road trip got off to a good start.
Torrid shooting from the Magic to start the game put the Bulls on their heels to start the contest, but behind aggressive play from Boozer (31 points, 11 rebounds) in the early going, the visitors stayed within close contact of their hosts. Boozers strength and experience helped him take advantage of Orlandos young big menveteran Glen Big Baby Davis was sidelined due to injuryand with Noah absent because of flu-like symptoms, the offensive production of the much-maligned power forward was necessary.
However, the Magic stayed hot, as the likes of rookie Andrew Nicholson, second-year big man Nikola Vucevic (20 points, 12 rebounds), leading scorer Arron Afflalo (19 points) and floor general Jameer Nelson (32 points), back from injury, led the way. But the Bulls continued to battle, as Luol Deng (23 points) complemented Boozer as a scorer, Taj Gibson (21 points, 10 rebounds, four blocked shots), starting in place of Noah, helped with the interior duties and the veteran backcourt of Kirk Hinrich (eight assists) and Rip Hamilton (nine assists) set the table for their teammates, all aiding the guests in seizing a 29-28 lead after a quarter of play.
The game remained a close-knit affair early in the second quarter, albeit at a slower pace and with more emphasis on the defensive end, which suited the Bulls. Gibson raised his level of play, as he was very active on the interior, a force on the glass and aggressive on offense, efficiently utilizing his extended playing time and in turn, keeping the Bulls afloat during a stretch in which both teams experienced a significant drop-off in shooting efficiency after red-hot opening periods.
For the Magic, Afflalo started to get hot, keeping Orlando within striking distance, but he was countered by instant-offense scorer Nate Robinson, who knocked down a pair of triples following an 0-for-3 start, while Hinrich and Boozer also got into the act as the quarter waned on. Although the pesky hosts refused to go away, the Bulls appeared to have control of the contest and at the intermission, the visitors held a 54-46 advantage.
After the break, Orlando tried to cut into the deficit behind Nelsons outside marksmanship, but the frontcourt trio of Gibson, Boozer and Deng ensured that the Bulls maintained some breathing room, and then extend the lead to double digits. Gibson, in particular, was outstanding for the visitors, as he dominated the paint on both ends of the floor, rising to the occasion in Noahs absence and getting the best of a generally hard-playing Magic frontline, including Vucevic, his college teammate at USC, who was coming off a team-record 29-rebound outing in a New Years Eve overtime loss to the defending-champion Heat, the Bulls next opponent.
Not to be overlooked was Dengs outside shooting and determined defense against Afflalo, as well as Boozers inside presence, both of which contributed to a comfortable winning margin, though one that was partially diminished after Hinrich picked up his fourth foul, robbing the visitors of one of their chief distributors, even as Hamilton continued to play pass-first basketball. A 9-0 Magic run briefly made it a single-digit game again, but the Bulls recovered and heading into the final stanza, they were ahead, 82-71.
At the outset of the fourth quarter, Orlando kept threatening to make it a tight game, but a mix of solid defense, timely offense and the Magic failing to capitalize on opportunities allowed the Bulls to keep a gap between the two squads. However, the hosts gradually inched closer and by the midway mark of the period, the Bulls lead, which had reached as high as 18 the previous quarter, had been sliced down to two, 86-84, with 5:20 to go, as Vucevic was a major factor.
A subsequent 8-0 Bulls run with Hamilton, previously on a minutes limit after returning from a foot injury, in the game heading into its stretch run briefly made it a double-digit game again, but it didnt last, as the Magic feverishly fought back late, with three-pointers from sharpshooter J.J. Redick and Afflalo sandwiched around a Vucevic dunk to make it a 94-92 contest. But Gibson blocked a Nelson layup attempt with 11.3 seconds left and after a timeout, Nelson missed a jumper to tie the game, Deng corralled the rebound and sealed the deal with a pair of free throws with 4.2 seconds on the clock.

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott wasn’t exactly hunting for his first shot, but the first time he touched the ball in an NBA game in nearly a month wasn’t the optimal situation for him to let one fly.

It wasn’t in transition where he runs to an opening behind the 3-point line, nor was it a drive-and-kick situation where the help defense collapsed and left him open. It was a regular, simple, pass to the perimeter and McDermott’s defender was in reasonable proximity with 3:23 left in the first quarter.

He launched and the crowd soon roared its approval as his sweet jumper was sorely missed by the Bulls bench brigade—and moments later when he ran the floor for a fearless layup that caused Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to call a timeout, McDermott showed he missed the United Center crowd too, calling for more noise on his way to the bench.

“Anytime you have a guy like Doug, he comes back and makes his first 3, that’s hard to do,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He stepped up with confidence on that first shot. I’m sure he had a lot of nerves getting back out there.”

Missing 12 games and suffering two concussions, McDermott looked right at home in 25 minutes of run Thursday as the Bulls were able to rely on their reserves in some form in their 95-91 win over the previously perfect road warriors known as the Spurs.

“We defended and kept them off the foul line,” McDermott said. “Coach (Jim) Boylen was with them, so we feel we know them and I think all this time they were missing my defense.”

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The last statement was certainly tongue-in-cheek, but the Bulls’ bench production was certainly missing in action while he was out with the concussion protocol. So much so that his return prompted the Bulls’ coaching staff to call out the reserves in the morning shootaround, demanding more.

“It’s definitely Dwyane (Wade) and Jimmy (Butler) and (Rajon) Rondo (but) the coaching staff kinda called out our bench like, we gotta have you tonight, bench,” McDermott said. “We took that to heart, we were really locked in.”

Seemingly his presence aided the Bulls’ spirits and production, as the Bulls’ bench had the least effective scoring bench in the NBA since Nov. 13, the day after McDermott hit the unforgiving floor against the Wizards for his second concussion this season.

Their net rating ranks ahead of only the Wizards, Mavericks and Nets, who are a combined 17-45 this season. Their effective field goal percentage, which takes into account 3-pointers, is worst in the league in that span (42.3 percent).

When McDermott was healthy for that smaller sample size, the Bulls’ bench ranked fifth in offensive efficiency, seventh in net rating, and fifth in efficient field goal percentage. Whether McDermott – and his absence – was directly related to those numbers, it’s clear the Bulls are better when they have their best reserve – and only true floor spacers on the second unit – on the court.

“We’re all professionals and we want to help the guys who are busting their butts in the first unit to get us the leads,” McDermott said. “Tonight we did a great job of sustaining it. We take it personal when teams come back on us.”

[MORE: Pau Gasol relishes consistency with Spurs he couldn't find with Bulls]

Nikola Mirotic was four of eight from the field, and Cristiano Felicio seems to be back in Fred Hoiberg’s good graces as he’s carved out a rotation spot for himself with nine points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes.

It seems as if Hoiberg will stick with this rotation of players, at least for a little while until Michael Carter-Williams returns from his injuries. If McDermott is the mark of the Bulls’ bench going from bottom feeder to adequate, it should show this month.

“When he’s out there on the floor and we get him coming off screens, it forces the defense to shift as another person they need to be aware of,” Hoiberg said. “It opens up driving lanes for our guys. It was great to have Doug back with us.”

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

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