With both Rip Hamilton and C.J. Watson -- the latter of whom as expected -- back in the lineup, the Chicago Bulls started the unofficial second half of the regular season with a hard-fought 99-95 victory over the the New Orleans Hornets on Tuesday night at the United Center. The Bulls improved to 28-8, 14-2 at home, this season.
The Bulls placed four players in double figures against a Hornets team that fell to 8-26. Derrick Rose poured in a game-high 32 points on 11-for-24 shooting to go along with nine assists, three steals and two blocks in 41 minutes of action and knocked down the game-winning shot, a 19-foot jumper, with 19.4 seconds left. Joakim Noah picked up right where he left off, notching yet another double-double with 15 points and 16 rebounds in 39 minutes. Luol Deng struggled from the field for most of the night (6-for-16) but still scored 14 and grabbed 11 boards in just under 42 minutes. Carlos Boozer added 14 of his own, including an emphatic left-handed dunk over Hornets center Chris Kaman -- who had a team-high 17 points -- in the first quarter, which was followed by a technical foul called on the Bulls' forward for staring down Kaman.
Coach Tom Thibodeau's bunch jumped out to a 28-18 lead less than 10 minutes into the game but the Hornets closed the first quarter on an 8-2 run to pull within 30-26. The visitors continued to display confidence and play scrappy on both ends of the court in the second when their bench provided a major spark and helped them capitalize on the home squad's 10 first-half turnovers. The Bulls exhibited stellar ball movement in the first quarter, but their offense was stagnant and sloppy as they trailed 50-47 at halftime.
The Bulls tried to distance themselves from the Hornets all night, but the road team hung around and made several runs that put it in position to taste a win. Chicago was on top 76-70 through three frames, but the Hornets, behind a 13-0 run, took a 95-91 lead with one minute, 25 seconds left. And that's when the reigning NBA MVP elevated his game to yet another level. He scored six of the Bulls' last eight points, highlighted by the aforementioned go-ahead jump shot right in front of the Hornets' bench, and made clutch shots throughout the second half.
Hamilton returned from a 13-game absence (groin, thigh) and had only five points in 16 minutes, 51 seconds of play. The Bulls clearly want to bring him along slowly and Rose admitted as much to Comcast SportsNet's Gail Fischer after the game. He did put up five assists, though, while Watson came back from concussion-like symptoms and was scoreless in seven minutes.
Once again, the fact that the Bulls have Rose, a three-time All-Star fresh off starting in Sunday's annual showcase, is what separated them from the opponent. Rose will do that in most contests, and he scored 21 of his 32 in the second half, but obviously the Bulls know they have to play much better. Thibodeau was irate with his team at a few points, which is nothing unusual for the reigning Coach of the Year. However, Chicago fans will surely give the Bulls somewhat of a pass for a lackluster outing given that they were coming off the All-Star break, which players needed much more than past years due to the compressed, 66-game schedule.
Next up, the Bulls return to action Wednesday night when they start a three-game road trip against the San Antonio Spurs (24-10) at AT&T Center.