Bulls cruise past Magic in Noah and Gibson's return

Bulls cruise past Magic in Noah and Gibson's return
April 15, 2013, 7:15 pm
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ORLANDO—All-Star center Joakim Noah and top reserve Taj Gibson returning to the lineup coincided with the Bulls (44-37) snapping a two-game win streak and moving to within a half-game of Atlanta for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs after Monday night’s 102-84 win over the lowly Magic (20-61) at the Amway Center.

The game was equal parts sloppy and seamless, with playoff readiness on display on occasion and getting various players coming off injuries into a rhythm also a priority, and while the end result was never in question by halftime, the team’s urgency reflected their tenuous position, as the Bulls are at Atlanta’s mercy in the race for the more-favorable fifth seed and a matchup with Brooklyn, as opposed to a first-round series against formidable Central Division rival Indiana.

Veteran floor general Beno Udrih, who torched the Bulls in their last meeting with the Magic, got off to a quick start, as did center Nikola Vucevic (17 points, 14 rebounds), a revelation in his second season as one of the league’s top rebounder after being traded from Philadelphia in the Dwight Howard blockbuster deal.

But a balanced Bulls attack, which saw all five starters—the visitors went small, with Jimmy Butler (eight points, 10 rebounds, five assists) jumping center, Carlos Boozer (22 points, six rebounds) and All-Star Luol Deng (18 points, eight assists) actually playing the interior positions, and a backcourt of Kirk Hinrich (14 points, 4-for-5 three-point shooting) and Marco Belinelli (16 points)—made up an early deficit by the midway point of the first quarter.

The combination of Deng and Boozer was the primary focus of the Bulls’ offense for the first stretch of the game, but when substitutions began to occur—Noah (six points, five rebounds in 15 minutes) and Gibson (12 points in 21 minutes) made their respective returns to the lineup—with nearly a full complement of players available for once, things appeared disjointed.

The inexperienced Magic, simply by virtue of playing hard and capitalizing on their guests’ uncertainty, held a 23-21 advantage after the opening period, in which it seemed unclear if the Bulls were more concerned with winning the contest or getting players into a rhythm.

Despite obviously being out of sync—several of their nine first-half turnovers were unforced—the Bulls managed to stay within striking distance, even as Noah and Rip Hamilton each picked up their third fouls early in the second quarter.

Although the Magic received production from emerging second-year forward Tobias Harris (20 points), acquired a midseason deal from Milwaukee for sharpshooter J.J. Redick, and Vucevic, who notched a double-double in the first half, the Bulls gradually overtook their hosts.

Boozer and Deng continued to be effective, while Hinrich offered timely outside shooting—he knocked down all three of his long-range attempts in the first half—and Butler provided a solid all-around effort, helping the Bulls build a slim cushion as halftime approached.

As the Bulls found a groove, their lead ballooned to double digits and at the intermission, they were ahead, 49-37.

After the break, the Bulls built upon their momentum, beginning the third quarter on a 10-2 run, with Belinelli being a major contributor after a quiet first half and smothering defense helping them acquire a 20-point margin of separation.

With four double-figure scorers among their starters, the visitors’ share-the-wealth philosophy was at its best, reflected in their efficient shooting numbers, while on the other end, without the Magic having a go-to scorer—veteran point guard Jameer Nelson was sidelined for the contest—the Bulls’ defensive brilliance was on full display.

The Bulls’ dominance continued throughout the frame, as Orlando was stymied on both ends of the floor, with only the hosts’ slight advantage on the glass an aspect of the game—and a Nate Robinson (seven assists) technical foul late in the quarter—Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau could find quarrel with.

Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls maintained a formidable 77-54 lead, with no signs of the Magic being able to do anything about it moving forward.

Orlando, however, had different ideas, going on a 6-0 run to start the fourth quarter, as the Bulls’ second unit—on this night, featuring regulars like Noah, Robinson, Butler, Gibson and veteran Rip Hamilton—again struggled to find a rhythm on either end of the court.

Rookie swingman Maurice Harkless (16 points) showed off the athletic, slashing game that’s opened eyes around the league over the second half of the season and while the hosts weren’t seriously threatening the Bulls’ lead, enough of it had evaporated that Thibodeau took a timeout to half the proceedings.

Following the coach’s adjustments—starters Deng, Hinrich and Boozer were reinserted into the contest—a 6-0 run ensued to seemingly put the game out of reach heading into the stretch run.

In the end, the Bulls cruised and deep reserves like Malcolm Thomas would see action, but the bigger concern would be how the Hawks fared in their Tuesday-night matchup in Toronto.