CHICAGO – The Bulls, of course, have lost Derrick Rose to a second straight season-ending knee injury, and Luol Deng to a trade.
You think a measly 18-point, third-quarter deficit is going to bother them?
Similar to the inexorable tenacity they have displayed all season, the Bulls kept coming and coming Friday night at the United Center, eventually overwhelming the Pistons 106-98 for their season-high seventh straight victory.
And what a night to do so: The Raptors lost at home to the Knicks, pushing the Bulls one game ahead of them for the Eastern Conference’s third seed with three games remaining. And the Heat beat the Pacers at home, taking a half-game lead for the Eastern Conference’s top spot.
If these seeds hold over the season’s final 5 days, the Bulls would avoid the red-hot Nets in the first round and, if they advance, the Heat in the second round. As it is, the Bulls clinched home-court advantage in the first round.
On a night D.J. Augustin scored a team-high 24 points, and Joakim Noah became the ninth player in NBA history to post at least 400 assists and 100 blocks in a season, perhaps one sequence defined the Bulls’ heart and hustle.
Noah missed a shot. Taj Gibson jumped over two Pistons to retrieve it. Noah missed another. Gibson bullied his way inside to grab another offensive rebound and slam it home, unleashing a Noah-like scream for punctuation.
“We just picked up our energy,” said Gibson, who finished with 17 points and three fourth-quarter offensive boards.
“When you make effort plays like that – and those were big-time, multiple-effort plays – that does nothing but inspire your team,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “That sort of ignited us.”
Noah finished with six points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists.
Andre Drummond paced the Pistons with 26 points and 26 rebounds.
Noah joined Kevin Garnett (six times), Sam Lacey (three), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (two), and Alvan Adams, Alex English, Dwyane Wade, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in the 400 assists/100 blocks club.
“We were real low energy in the first half, not making effort plays, not back in transition,” Thibodeau said. “That’s not us. We made a big switch in intensity in the second.”
The Pistons built their big lead behind Andre Drummond, who finished with 26 points and a career-high-tying 26 rebounds. He outrebounded the Bulls by himself until midway through the third quarter.
But Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy, who scored all 14 of his points in the second half, combined for all 12 points in a momentum-building, 12-3 third-quarter run. And the Bulls opened the fourth with a demoralizing 20-3 spurt, sparked mostly by Augustin.
“He has been a godsend for us,” Thibodeau said.
The Bulls’ lowest-scoring offense in the NBA posted a 68-point second half.
“It feels good to have the three seed,” Noah said. “It means [Sunday’s game in Madison Square Garden vs. the Knicks] is going to be popping. I like it when the Garden is popping.”