(MCT) — ORLANDO, Fla. — More poor defense and rebounding had helped trim the 18-point lead to two. Illness and injury already had whittled the 13-man roster to 10.
Given the way the Bulls have been scuffling along, they could have packed it up, left Kirk Hinrich on an island and succumbed to the Magic on Wednesday night at Amway Center.
Instead, with support chomping at the bit nearby, Hinrich ably guarded a red-hot Jameer Nelson, Luol Deng rebounded Nelson’s miss before swishing game-clinching free throws and Nelson’s buzzer-beating layup mattered not as the Bulls hung on for a much-needed 96-94 victory.
That loud sound you heard might have been the collective exhalation emanating from the postgame locker room.
“We haven’t been playing well,” Hinrich said. “We had guys out. We knew there would be times during the game when things weren’t going to go our way. But we knew it was super important to pick each other up.”
Offensively, there were few issues. Carlos Boozer scored a season-high 31 points on top of his 11 rebounds. Deng finished with 23. Taj Gibson, starting for a flu-stricken Joakim Noah, contributed a season-high 21 points with his 10 boards.
Even Richard Hamilton, who is supposed to be on a minutes limit for his plantar fascia injury, got into the act. Playing 10 minutes past his supposed 20-minute limit, Hamilton consistently recognized getting double-teamed off pindowns and finished with nine assists.
A fine start to the third quarter swelled the lead to 18 points with 4 minutes, 39 seconds remaining in the period. Deng, Boozer and Gibson scored all 28 points in the period.
“Huge,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of Gibson. “Played big minutes, battled. Played center all night. Just did a great job in all areas — blocked shots, rebounding, scoring, executing. He has been playing very well of late. He’s starting to get into a pretty good rhythm.”
But the Bulls still don’t have their defensive and rebounding rhythm. The Magic became the fifth straight opponent and eighth of 10 to win the rebounding battle. And with Nelson pushing his way to a career-high-tying 32 points, the Magic stormed back.
“Offensively, we played with a lot of energy,” Thibodeau said. “The ball was hopping. Defensively, we still weren’t good. It was better but it’s not what it needs to be. We still have to do much better.”
The Magic first pulled to within two with 5:20 remaining but the Bulls responded with an 8-0 run on Gibson’s dunk, two Kirk Hinrich free throws, Boozer’s layup from Hamilton and Hamilton’s jumper with 3:35 left.
They didn’t score again until Deng’s game-clinching free throws with 4.2 seconds left.
But they came up with the biggest stop of the night with Hinrich on Nelson, sending the Magic to their seventh straight loss.
“I just didn’t want him to get a 3-pointer off,” Hinrich said. “I got up on him. He took a dribble, shot faked and missed the shot.”
The Bulls have won five straight here and are 7-1 against Eastern Conference teams on the road.
Hinrich celebrated his 32nd birthday by slipping on a wet spot and banging his bruised left knee on the court. He didn’t care.
“The win is my present,” he said.