LOS ANGELES—For once facing a team even more short-handed than themselves, the Bulls held off a late-game surge by the Lakers Sunday afternoon, getting back to .500 for the season and finishing their six-game Western Conference road trip with a 3-3 mark after a 92-86 victory at the Staples Center.
The Bulls (25-25) jumped out to a 10-0 start against their depleted opponents—even with nine healthy players, they were less undermanned as the Lakers—with Taj Gibson (18 points, six rebounds), again starting in place of the injured Carlos Boozer, who missed his second straight game with a strained left calf, factoring in heavily, reaching double figures in scoring in the first quarter Kirk Hinrich (17 points, five assists), who remained on a minutes limit of approximately 25 per game since his return to the lineup from a right-hamstring injury.
Former league MVP Steve Nash, back in action after missing most of the season, led the way for the short-handed Lakers (18-33), who also started the likes of Robert Sacre and rookie Ryan Kelly, a second-round draft pick. That underwhelming cast of characters was unable to prevent the Bulls from taking a double-digit lead, ending the opening period with a 34-23 advantage, despite Lakers backup center Chris Kaman (27 points, 10 rebounds) making an impact off the bench.
Kaman’s strong play carried over to the second quarter, as the skilled veteran big man’s scoring and the passing ability of reserve point guard Kendall Marshall (13 points, 11 assists) led the Lakers on a 12-0 run of their own, cutting it to a single-possession game. The Bulls, buoyed by backup floor general D.J. Augustin’s (15 points, six assists) usual blend of scoring and playmaking, managed to obtain some breathing room toward the end of the first half, enabling them to maintain a 52-46 lead at the intermission, following a layup by second-string power forward Jordan Hill (15 points, nine rebounds) with 0.7 seconds remaining before halftime.
After the break, the Bulls gradually widened the gap, as All-Star center Joakim Noah (18 points, 13 rebounds) started to come alive offensively, complementing his typically solid showing on the glass. The Bulls built a comfortable double-digit cushion through their scoring balance and buckling down on the defensive end of the floor.
Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls had firmly regained their footing and were ahead by a 77-62 margin, their prospects to hold on to the lead improved by Nash’s injury-related departure from the contest, as well as Mike Dunleavy Jr. also making offensive contributions.
The Lakers scored the first five points of the fourth quarter, prompting Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to put a halt to the proceedings, after which the deficit was immediately trimmed to single digits, despite whatever adjustments were made in the timeout. The reserve trio of Hill, Kaman and Marshall made its presence felt, but Noah kept the Bulls afloat and a tough layup by Jimmy Butler, who had struggled with his shot all day, put the Bulls up, 86-76, as the game entered its stretch run.
Here, the Lakers looked to seize the momentum, as the celebrity-dotted crowd, perhaps now fully engaged after a Saturday night in Hollywood, offered up its fervent support, getting behind the home team as they made it a two-possession game with under two minutes to play. A Steve Blake steal, one of the Bulls’ 14 turnovers in the contest, led to a Wesley Johnson fast-break dunk and the lead was narrowed to 88-84 with 48.3 seconds on the clock, leading to Thibodeau calling a timeout.
Augustin missed a jumper, but redeemed himself with a steal on the other end, then knocked down a pair of free throws with 21.1 seconds remaining and successfully converted a final trip to the foul line with 9.3 seconds to go, enabling the Bulls to hold off the Lakers’ late charge and return to Chicago for their final two home games before the All-Star break on a positive note.