By Mike McGraw
Joakim Noah and Nate Robinson were leading the cheers when the Bulls rallied to defeat Orlando 99-93 on Tuesday night at the United Center.
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But Luol Deng, calm and stoic, was at the center of everything. He finished with a team-high 23 points, along with 8 rebounds and 4 assists.
Noah was screaming, Robinson was dancing, and Deng was being himself. They made a pretty good trio, though, scoring 22 of the Bulls' 31 fourth-quarter points.
"I've just got to play my role," Deng said. "I'm trying to be out there and keep the guys grounded. For me, I love having those guys out there doing what they do. I'm celebrating with them at the same time. I might not show it, but I am."
For much of the night, this game was an unwelcome replay of Saturday, when an unheralded, short-handed New Orleans team came into the UC and beat the Bulls.
Orlando (2-1) controlled the game after finishing the first quarter with an 11-2 run and led by 7 points late in the third.
The Bulls had trouble keeping up with the Magic's quick guards. Arron Afflalo finished with 28 points, while former Purdue star E'Twaun Moore, an East Chicago, Ind., native added 17 points and J.J. Redick scored 10.
Coach Tom Thibodeau adjusted his late-game lineup to include second-year forward Jimmy Butler, along with Deng, Noah, Robinson and Taj Gibson.
Orlando started the night ranked second in the NBA in scoring with 108.5 points per game. The Magic didn't hit 100 against the Bulls and shot 37.5 percent from the field in the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, Robinson and Noah got caught up in the excitement. Robinson hit consecutive jumpers to give the Bulls the lead for good with 9:12 remaining. He launched a quick 3-pointer after that but was bailed out when Orlando's Glen Davis fouled Noah on the rebound.
"The ball finds energy," Robinson said. "It finds positive energy and it knows where to go. Today it bounced off everybody, and everybody contributed."
At the end, the Bulls missed 3 free throws in the final minute that would have given the team 100 points and won free hamburgers for the fans. Noah tried to help the cause by launching a 3-point shot in the final seconds, but it didn't go in. Inside the locker room, he had second thoughts.
"I got caught up in the moment," Noah said. "I regret it a little bit. It wasn't a good shot. You have to respect the game, because you never know what can happen. I just got caught up in the moment and I was trying to get the people a Big Mac. Next time I won't take that 3-pointer."
Noah had a spirited battle with Davis for most of the night. Those two battled in college and again during the memorable Bulls-Celtics playoff series. They may seem like enemies, but that's not the case.
"I've known 'Baby' since we were 15 years old," Noah said. "I know him really well. He knows me really well. I have a lot of funny stories about that guy.
"We've been battling for a long time, especially when he was out there in Boston. He's a good dude and I wish him nothing but the best."