By Mike McGraw
The Bulls did something remarkable Wednesday night in Cleveland.
It happened late in the first quarter, when coach Tom Thibodeau made his usual substitution, sending Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson into the game.
The thing is, this time Luol Deng checked out. He actually sat down and spent the final three minutes of the opening quarter on the bench.
This was the first time all season Deng left the floor in the first quarter. He had played every minute before this.
The reason why Deng came out of the game was equally surprising. The Bulls wanted to keep Marco Belinelli on the court because he had such a hot hand. Belinelli scored a season-high 23 points, and the Bulls rolled to a 95-85 victory at Quicken Loans Arena.
"Marco, I thought, had a pretty good rhythm going and he had a hot hand," Thibodeau said of the first-quarter substitution. "So we went the other way on that."
Before Wednesday night, Belinelli had scored in double figures just three times all season. Against the Cavs, he hit his first 4 shots and had 10 points in the first quarter alone.
The 6-foot-4 shooting guard has generally been a disappointment since signing as a free agent last summer. In his second start in place of the injured Richard Hamilton, Belinelli finally broke out.
"You know it's a matter of time," Thibodeau said. "I think each day and each game, he's gotten more comfortable. I thought he played very, very well."
The entire team played well in the first quarter, with the Bulls jumping to an early 27-11 lead.
Both teams played without their starting backcourts. The Bulls are missing Hamilton and Derrick Rose, while Cleveland had Kyrie Irving (broken finger) and rookie Dion Waiters sidelined by injuries.
Deng's jumper with 1:47 left in the second quarter gave the Bulls a 45-27 lead, and it looked like they were headed toward another blowout win in Cleveland. The Bulls won by 29 at Quicken Loans Arena in the second game of the season.
But the Cavs scored the last 8 points of the first half, then hit a basket to open the third quarter and close within 45-37. Again, Belinelli came through by nailing a 3-pointer on the next trip.
Cleveland got within 64-59 late in the third quarter. Noah answered with a jumper, Kirk Hinrich scored the Bulls' final 6 points of the third quarter, and the lead was back to 17 early in the fourth.
During the fourth quarter, Cleveland's Jeremy Pargo got a technical foul for throwing the ball into Belinelli's face after being hacked on a fastbreak. Noah also got a technical, his fifth of the season, which is a concern for Thibodeau.
"Not only Jo. Our team. We can't afford fourth-quarter technicals. We just can't. It's too hard to make up. So we've got to clean that up," the coach said. "I know it's an emotional game and we're an emotional player.
"We've got to control the emotions, particularly late. There's an appropriate way to make your point to an official, and that's something as a team we have to learn.