CHICAGO -- Before players scattered off to various warmer climes for the All-Star break, the Bulls downed the Nets, 92-76, on Thursday night to improve to two games above .500 for the first time since Nov. 21.
Such a modest accomplishment may seem like a small detail in a season that began with championship aspirations. But given that Nov. 21 marked the last game the Bulls played before Derrick Rose suffered a season-ending knee injury the next night, it's not.
The Bulls, suddenly just a game out of third place in the Eastern Conference, have picked themselves up off the mat. With the Pacers and Heat ahead of them, that won't mean a championship. It will make for a compelling final 30 games and beyond.
"I like our fighting spirit," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "There has been a great will and determination to overcome things. I think we're starting to believe."
Carlos Boozer returned from missing three games with a strained left calf to score 15 points with 10 rebounds in 27 minutes, 35 seconds. Joakim Noah added 14 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists in another all-around effort.
And for anyone worried what Boozer's return would do to Taj Gibson's production, the versatile forward supplied 16 points in 31 minutes.
"It's really an advantage to have two guys at that position who can give you that type of production, both points and rebounds, on a nightly basis," general manager Gar Forman had said at Wednesday's team charity function.
In other words, there's no power forward controversy in a town well-versed in ones for quarterbacks.
"Carlos will start," Thibodeau said. "Taj's minutes are going to be fine. For us to achieve what we want to achieve, Carlos has to play. He has a big role on this team."
Boozer said he "felt great" and his rebounding contributed to the Bulls' 45-27 dominance. Thibodeau noted the matchup problems Boozer causes.
Speaking of matchups, Jimmy Butler absolutely smothered Joe Johnson defensively as the Nets posted a season-low in points. Johnson, who shot 4-for-14, and Butler each drew technical fouls in the third when Johnson shoved Butler in the face and Butler charged back.
"I don't say too much so if I'm mad, you must have really done something to get underneath my skin," Butler said of his first career technical. "I don't think he wanted any of that. I don't play to fight, but come on, man, just play basketball. I love that matchup."
After trailing by 16, the Nets pulled within 75-72 in the fourth before the Bulls closed with a 17-4 run. D.J. Augustin first kick-started a 9-0 run with a 3-pointer. Butler, who added 14 points in 46 minutes, scored on a layup with an assist from Gibson. Noah sank a lefty runner. And Gibson buried a jumper off an assist from Noah.
"We always play to win and we play for one another," Butler said.
That togetherness showed in the support Noah received as he exited the postgame locker room, en route to his second straight All-Star appearance.
"We're happy, but we're not satisfied," Noah said. "We want more. We're hungry."
(c)2014 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services