DENVER—Call it Nate Robinson’s revenge.
Through three quarters of Thursday night’s game, the Bulls stayed within striking distance of their run-and-gun opponents, but a fourth-quarter run sparked by the aforementioned diminutive scorer changed all of that. Last spring’s playoff hero went on one of his patented individual spurts, breaking open the contest and sending the Bulls (6-4) to a 97-87 defeat at the hands of the Nuggets (5-6), ending their five-game winning streak.
The Bulls kept pace with the up-tempo Nuggets in the early going, using a balanced attack and going with dual point-guard lineups in the opening period—first, Derrick Rose (19 points, four assists) and Kirk Hinrich, quickly filling in for temporary starter Mike Dunleavy Jr. (14 points), then Hinrich and second-year speedster Marquis Teague—in a nod to the depth and speed needed in this type of contest.
Behind strong frames from Rose—matched up with fellow top-tier floor general Ty Lawson, who also fared well, getting athletic big men J.J. Hickson and Kenneth Faried involved—and Carlos Boozer (15 points, 10 rebounds), the Bulls led, 25-24, after a quarter of play.
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Despite Rose continuing to score at a high level, Denver overtook the Bulls, as contributions from Faried and young reserve wings Jordan Hamilton (17 points) and Evan Fournier, boosted the Nuggets. The Bulls managed to control the game’s tempo better, but surprisingly suffered uncharacteristic defensive lapses to allow the Nuggets, who shot a gaudy 53.7 percent from the field in the first half to build a cushion.
But with the interior tandem of Boozer and All-Star center Joakim Noah (11 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists), who found his all-around game after a quiet start, helping them make a push, the Bulls narrowed the gap to 50-48 at the intermission.
After the break, the Nuggets widened the gap before the game fell into an oddly sluggish phase, with neither team playing very offensively-proficient basketball. Rose and Boozer continued to be the Bulls’ focal points, while veteran guard Randy Foye paced the Nuggets’ balanced attack, with Lawson functioning as a pass-first playmaker.
Somehow, the Bulls’ dismal third-quarter offensive showing didn’t put them out of contention, but heading into the final stanza, they trailed, 70-62.
The fourth quarter began disastrously for the Bulls, as Robinson (10 points), the former Chicago fan favorite, knocked down a pair of three-pointers to start the period, promptly followed by a Bulls timeout and subsequent technical foul on head coach Tom Thibodeau. When action resumed, Hamilton—part of a Nuggets bench that outscored the Bulls’ reserves, 49-21, knocked down two consecutive triples of his own, leading to another timeout and concluding a 13-0 Nuggets run.
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With the lead swelling to a 21-point margin, it was all academic after that, even so early in the period, as the Bulls simply didn’t have the firepower to make a sustained comeback and Rose’s exit midway through the frame was basically a white flag. Fortunately, things didn’t get completely out of hand in the extended garbage time, but with Rose shooting 9-for-20 from the field after a 7-for-12 first half, Boozer going 7-for-18 and All-Star small forward Deng having a miserable 3-for-18 night, with a back-to-back game looming Friday in Portland against the hot Trail Blazers, Thibodeau bucking normal conventions and resting the trio was the best thing to happen in the period.
To add insult to injury, Gibson picked up his technical foul and was ejected with a little more than a minute remaining, a fitting culmination to an evening gone wrong.