The Bulls (27-25) headed into the All-Star break in fourth place in the Eastern Conference and with three consecutive wins under their belt after beating the Nets (24-27), 92-76, Thursday night at the United Center.
The Bulls’ recent high-scoring ways continued in the first quarter, as they jumped out to an early cushion, led by their power-forward tandem of Carlos Boozer (15 points, 10 rebounds) — back in the lineup after missing three games with a strained left calf — and sixth man Taj Gibson (16 points, five rebounds, two blocked shots), who provided his usual boost off the bench. All-Star center Joakim Noah (14 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists, two blocks) was also effective, and the Bulls got balanced offense as a whole, mitigating the impact of Nets point guard Shaun Livingston, a native of Peoria, Ill., and reserve big man Andray Blatche, in order to take a 29-19 lead at the conclusion of the opening period.
Brooklyn managed to gradually slice into the Bulls’ double-digit advantage in the second quarter by buckling down on defense and forcing turnovers, with the home team’s frustration manifesting in a technical foul assessed to sometimes-volatile Noah. But despite the solid play of future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce, the Bulls maintained a solid margin of separation, going into the intermission ahead, 49-41, partially due to the outside marksmanship of Mike Dunleavy Jr. (14 points, five rebounds).
[WATCH: Bulls get into dust-up vs. Nets]
After the break, the same pattern of the Nets trimming the gap and the Bulls again extending their lead emerged, though it was livened up by a third-quarter skirmish between Jimmy Butler (14 points, five rebounds, four assists) and Brooklyn veteran All-Star Joe Johnson. Johnson elbowed Butler, which the third-year player took exception to, leading to a brief commotion — double technical fouls were issued after Johnson poked Butler in the face and Butler had to be restrained — perhaps a carryover of the two teams’ playoff battle last spring. After things settled back down, minus a Pierce technical, the Bulls, buoyed by a quietly strong performance by Kirk Hinrich (nine points, seven assists), took a 69-61 advantage into the final stanza.
The Nets again cut into the deficit, making it a single-possession contest, 75-72, on a three-pointer by Andrei Kirilenko. That prompted a 9-0 Bulls run to make it a double-digit difference, as Noah’s all-around brilliance and Gibson’s scoring, a constant in the Bulls’ recent games, led the way down the stretch.