BY K.C. JOHNSON
CHICAGO – There are certain things fans have come to expect in the Tom Thibodeau era.
A coach who doesn’t sit down. Relentless defense and rebounding. And, more often than not, a strong reaction to even a single loss.
And so it was again Tuesday night at the United Center. The Bulls rallied from a seven-point deficit late in the third quarter to defeat the Magic 99-93, narrowly missing holding their 10th straight regular-season opponent below 90 points.
That would have been a franchise record. Avoiding two-game losing streaks as often as the Thibodeau-led Bulls do only feels like one.
The Bulls experienced just one two-game losing streak in the lockout-shortened season and a mere four in Thibodeau’s first 82-game campaign. They haven’t lost two straight games at the United Center since dropping five straight under Vinny Del Negro in March 2010.
The Bulls trailed 70-68 entering the final period but got a strong closing quarter from the group of Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Nate Robinson, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler. Deng scored eight of his team-high 23 points in the fourth, while Noah finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and five blocks.
“Taj came in and, along with Jimmy, they gave us a big spark and Nate also,” Thibodeau said. “The second half we played a lot harder.”
Robinson played all but 39 seconds of the fourth quarter in relief of Kirk Hinrich, leaving only after having a cut opened on his head. He contributed 11 points and six assists. And Gibson added the exclamation point with 39 seconds left, dunking home and finishing a three-point play.
Arron Afflalo’s 28 points led all scorers.
“We just played with a lot more energy in the fourth,” Gibson said.
It’s easy to see why the Magic opened with two straight home victories and the league’s second-highest scoring offense, including a league-best 3-point attack. Picked by many to struggle mightily in the wake of Dwight Howard’s departure, the team features plenty of quickness and shooting.
“Their ball movement is excellent,” Thibodeau said. “They’re making the ball hop. They’ve scored the ball very easily from throughout the preseason into the regular season. Obviously, their strength is no longer Dwight and everything feeding off that. But they still have very talented players.”
Challenged by Thibodeau to improve their defensive transition after Saturday’s dismal loss to the Hornets, the Bulls held the high-scoring Magic to nine fast-break points and 41.9 percent shooting.
The Magic played without Jameer Nelson, Al Harrington and Hedo Turkoglu.
Purdue product E’Twaun Moore ably replaced Nelson, finishing with 17 points and five assists.
The Bulls opened the fourth quarter with a 12-2 run capped by a Noah jumper.
“Noah was terrific in a lot of different areas – multiple effort, shotblocking, playmaking, scoring, great energy,” Thibodeau said. “He played a great all-around game.”
“This is the way we need to play to win, having different guys step up,” Gibson said.