By Mike McGraw
The next time anyone rolls their eyes at Tom Thibodeau’s frequent assertion the battered Bulls have “more than enough in the locker room,” he can point to Saturday night’s performance as proof.
There have been few games this season when the Bulls were missing only Derrick Rose, and Thibodeau’s reaction is almost always the same. Saturday against Indiana was no exception.
Credit for the Bulls’ 87-84 victory over the Central Division leaders goes mostly to Nazr Mohammed, who started in place of a sore-footed Joakim Noah, and Daequan Cook, who stepped in as an emergency combo guard and led the decisive surge early in the fourth quarter.
“We needed everybody,” Thibodeau said after the victory. “Short-handed, we’ve got to play with great intensity all the time. That’s our chance. We’ve shown great resiliency all year long.”
Mohammed was asked to slow down Pacers center Roy Hibbert, and he did a decent job. Hibbert finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds but hit just 8 of 18 shots. On the other end, Mohammed contributed 11 points and 7 rebounds while playing a season-high 31 minutes.
“In this league, it’s all about confidence. Nazr, his resume speaks for itself,” teammate Taj Gibson said. “He won a championship, played on great teams. He’s always ready to go.”
Cook hasn’t been called upon very often since being signed Jan. 6. He didn’t play in either of the previous two games.
On Saturday, not only did Marco Belinelli (4 points) have another quiet night, the Bulls also lost their late-game sparkplug to some misguided hustle. Nate Robinson was ejected from the game for committing a grade 2 flagrant foul with 27.3 seconds left in the third quarter.
The call was correct. Robinson tried to stop Indiana’s Lance Stephenson from getting a fastbreak dunk and his exuberance got the best of him. Robinson grabbed Stephenson by the shoulders and ended up throwing him to the ground.
After reviewing the video, the referees decided Robinson deserved an early shower. Just seconds earlier, Robinson chased down D.J. Augustin from behind and forced a turnover.
“The thing I liked about it, he made unbelievable effort to get back and not concede the points,” Thibodeau said.
The score was tied at 66-66 at the time. Stephenson hit just 1 of the flagrant free throws, Indiana didn’t score on the ensuing possession, and Cook went coast to coast for a lay-in at the buzzer, giving the Bulls’ their first lead since early in the game.
Cook then opened the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer, set up Gibson for a dunk and later drained a jumper that put the Bulls ahead 81-72 with 4:31 remaining.
“I was just out there doing whatever I could,” Cook said. “It’s all about preparation, being patient and waiting your turn. I always prepare that I’m going to play every game.”
Not long after that, Cook hustled to steal a long fastbreak pass and ran into a courtside photographer. He was helped off the court and diagnosed with a bruised thigh. He was limping in the locker room, unsure if he will be able to play at Minnesota on Sunday.
Luol Deng led the Bulls with 20 points, doing a nice job of going at Indiana’s rising star Paul George (23 points). Deng hasn’t necessarily been in a slump, although he’d averaged 13.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and shot 39.3 percent from the field in the previous 10 games, all below his season averages.
“He’s doing a lot of other things on the floor to help us win,” Thibodeau said. “That’s what he’s done for three years — he gives the team whatever we need. A lot of people overlook that.”
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