CLEVELAND — Hours before Wednesday’s tipoff, Marco Belinelli reclined on the Bulls’ bench and lamented the difficult loss from the previous night.
“But that’s in the past and the next game is the most important, right?” Belinelli said.
Similar to what played out at Quicken Loans Arena in the Bulls’ 95-85 victory over the Cavaliers, Belinelli proved on target.
The much-maligned shooting guard had fallen out of Tom Thibodeau’s rotation as recently as four games ago. But starting his second game for the injured Richard Hamilton, Belinelli scored a game- and season-high 23 points to power the Bulls to their 10th straight victory in this series.
Next up on the two-game trip? The Pistons, whom the Bulls have defeated 15 straight times.
Belinelli also posted season-highs in minutes after playing 39 minutes, 39 seconds and shots with 15.
“He never got discouraged,” Joakim Noah said. “He kept playing hard. You see that as a player, someone who is passionate about the game. I’m happy it’s paying off for him.”
How much did Belinelli have it rolling? Thibodeau brought Jimmy Butler in for Luol Deng instead of Belinelli at Butler’s customary first-quarter rotation slot. It’s the first time all season Deng, who added 22 points, has sat in the opening period.
“I’m feeling more and more comfortable,” Belinelli said. “Of course I struggled at first and maybe I lost a little confidence. But I work and work because I want to help the team win.”
In the battle of the flowing locks, Noah’s double-double of 13 points and 15 rebounds outshined Anderson Varejao’s 11 points and 15 rebounds. Varejao, the league’s leading rebounder, extended his double-double streak to 10 games and has grabbed 15 or more rebounds in 10 straight.
“He’s a hard-playing dude,” Noah said. “You have to give credit where credit is due. Do I like playing against him? No. He never takes a play off. I really respect him.”
Just like their last visit here on Nov. 2, the Bulls built a 16-point, first-quarter lead with sizzling shooting. Like the Bulls, the Cavaliers played without their starting backcourt as Kyrie Irving and rookie Dion Waiters sat with injuries.
“The first quarter was huge, getting off to a quick start,” Thibodeau said. “Marco was terrific. (Kirk) Hinrich (eight assists) running the team was outstanding.”
Though a once-robust, 18-point lead dwindled to five at one point in the third quarter, the Bulls remained in command throughout. They also played at a faster pace than in recent games, posting 20 fast-break points. That’s their highest total since recording 21 in the third game of the season.