By Mike McGraw
Tom Thibodeau used another of his favorite lines after Saturday’s game: “In the NBA, you can find an excuse every night.”
The Bulls’ list of potential excuses is almost too long to list, but here’s a quick rundown:
They already were missing Derrick Rose and Richard Hamilton with injuries, Taj Gibson was ejected in the second half for arguing a foul call, Kirk Hinrich sat out the second half with an elbow injury, and the Bulls were playing their fourth game in five nights against the hottest team in the Eastern Conference.
With Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Marco Belinelli all playing 40 minutes for the second consecutive night, the Bulls found a way to beat East-leading New York 93-85 at the United Center.
“Yeah, I was tired, but it’s all worth it right now,” Noah said. “The thing that stinks is when you feel like this and you don’t get the win. You don’t get the icing on the cake. Saturday night, we just won — it feels good, you know.”
One night after erupting for 30 points, 23 rebounds and 6 assists at Detroit, Noah seemed to lose his legs in the third quarter. He repeatedly fell short while jumping for rebounds but found the energy to score 8 points in the fourth quarter.
The minute count over the past two nights reads like this: Deng 89, Noah 88 and Belinelli 85. Deng and Belinelli led the Bulls (11-8) with 22 points each against New York, while Noah finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds.
“It’s always tough when after the game, you see Marco icing,” Deng said with a laugh. “Like I said, I’m used to it. I play those minutes all the time, I know what to expect and I know how to take care of myself.
“I think Jo’s starting to get the idea. He’s starting to realize he’s going to be putting up those minutes.”
Deng and Noah rank 1-2 in the NBA in minutes per game and both exceeded their season average Saturday.
“Four games in five nights. It’s no joke,” Noah said. “Only NBA players can tell you how it feels. It’s not easy, but you know what, it makes winning that much sweeter.”
The Knicks (14-5), who started the night on a five-game winning streak, had problems of their own. Leading scorer Carmelo Anthony missed his second straight game with a lacerated middle finger on his left hand. New York was already without Marcus Camby, Amare Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert with injuries.
Guard Raymond Felton led the Knicks with 27 points but hit just 9 of 30 shots. Ex-Bull Tyson Chandler produced 14 points and 18 rebounds, while the Bulls took advantage of his 5 fouls down the stretch.
Neither side led by more than 4 points in the fourth quarter until Deng hit 2 free throws to put the Bulls ahead 83-77 with 3:24 remaining. New York’s J.R. Smith knocked down a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 3, then Deng answered with a 21-foot jumper to put the home team ahead 85-80 with 2:16 left.
Chandler’s free throws cut the margin to 3, before Belinelli drained a corner jumper and Noah scored on a bank shot to put the Bulls up 89-82 with 56.1 seconds on the clock.
The Bulls’ stretch of tough opponents continues Tuesday when the Los Angeles Clippers visit. Gibson plans to work on his referee relations.
“I called him by his name,” Gibson recounted. “I said, ‘Derrick (Stafford), there were some tough calls in there early.’ I just expressed my opinion. I said, ‘You’ve just got to watch it, it’s real physical in there.’
“He just turned and T’d me up. I said, ‘Are you serious?’ and he T’d me up again.
“I’m going to let Thibs ask the questions for me.”
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