The mark of some of the league’s elite teams – the San Antonio Spurs of the past decade, the Lebron-era Miami Heat – is their ability to flip a switch and go from pedestrian, average basketball and pull away to clinch ball games. The Bulls followed their lead in using a strong fourth quarter to close out an overall sloppy game at the United Center.
Trailing 81-73 with 1:57 to play in the third quarter, the Bulls went on a 17-4 run to haul in the red-hot Suns and take the lead, draining shot after shot while the defense finally started limiting Phoenix’s ability to score at will from wherever they felt like.
The bench, worked over by a superior Phoenix unit for most of the first three quarters, outscored Phoenix’s reserve unit by a huge margin after the fourth quarter began, with Aaron Brooks, Tony Snell and Nikola Mirotic all connecting on three-pointers to send the Bulls ahead for good 88-85.
From there, the Bulls stretched the lead to nine points and threatened to run into the distance before a few timely Suns baskets kept them close in the final few minutes.
Taj Gibson had one of his better games of the season, being active on both sides of the ball and flying across the court for rebounds and offensive put-backs. His highlight of the game finishing a dunk off a lobbed pass from Joakim Noah in the high post the kind of play only the Bulls can really pull off. He finished with 12 points and 4 rebounds on 6-9 shooting.
Derrick Rose set the tone early for the Bulls as he passed up his maligned outside shooting in favor of routinely attacking the basket. His forays to the rim frequently left Pau Gasol wide open right in his wheelhouse around the free-throw line, or led to easy layups or the Suns sending Rose to the line for two.
The Suns tried to cut into the lead late in the game, closing to within five but the Bulls pulled it out thanks to timely baskets from Gasol and free-throws from Rose and Butler.
Despite both teams shooting more than 50 percent from the field for most of the first half, the game failed to develop any real flow with both teams carelessly turning the ball over on a series of bad passes and dropped catches and the rare out-of-bounds violation called on Mike Dunleavy for straying off-court for too long.
Suns bench scored 27 of it’s first 43 points.
Nikola Mirotic, despite struggling to secure a rotation spot and finding himself playing at small forward, managed some terrific first half minutes, scoring on back-to-back plays showcasing his lauded versatility – a catch-and-shoot three followed by a drive to the hoop scoring through contact.
The win pushes the Bulls to 35-21, a full game ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers and three games behind the second-placed Toronto Raptors.