No matter which players show up for the playoffs, the Bulls should be a tough out.
Missing the usual suspects, plus Taj Gibson, on Thursday in Brooklyn, the Bulls rallied from a 16-point deficit to beat the Nets 92-90 at the Barclays Center.
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The Bulls squandered some late opportunities while dropping winnable road games to Dallas and Washington in the past week. This time, they got some late-game luck as Nets center Brook Lopez tossed up a 20-foot corner jumper that rolled around the rim, hit the backboard and bounced off as time expired.
Carlos Boozer might have played his best game as a Bull, finishing with 29 points and 18 rebounds. He knocked down a lean-back jumper with 1:34 left to put the Bulls ahead 86-85.
After Joe Johnson drained a 3-pointer and Deron Williams hit a lane jumper, the Bulls trailed 90-87 with less than a minute remaining.
Luol Deng stepped up by sticking a corner jumper with his foot on the 3-point line to close the gap to 1. Then Nate Robinson stole a pass from Brook Lopez and dropped a 10-foot floater in the lane to put the Bulls ahead 91-90 with 22 seconds left.
With a chance to take the lead, Williams found Lopez on the baseline, but his bank shot was blocked by Nazr Mohammed. Daequan Cook hit 1 of 2 free throws to put the Bulls up 92-90.
The Bulls were missing Gibson, who aggravated a left knee sprain Tuesday, as well as Joakim Noah (plantar fasciitis), Marco Belinelli (abdominal strain), Richard Hamilton (sore back) and Derrick Rose (knee surgery).
Deng, Butler and Boozer all played at least 42 minutes. Deng added 18 points, Butler scored 16 and Robinson 12. Williams had 30 points and 10 assists for the Nets, fouling out Kirk Hinrich in the fourth quarter.
"For us, it's big," Nate Robinson told reporters after the game. "Kirk fouled out. You got Marco out. Rip out. D-Rose out. Taj out. Guys are just stepping up, man, and that's what teams do. You got Jo out and (Mohammed) stepping in for him.
"These guys are coming in and it's like old school wrestling. Tag team. You know when one guy goes in, tag him, the other guy go out. Back and forth. We just got to keep playing and keep doing that, we'll be OK."
If the Bulls (41-33) had won in Dallas or Washington, they could think seriously about passing the Nets (43-32) for fourth place in the East. As it stands, the Bulls are essentially tied with Atlanta (42-34) for fifth place and trail fourth-place Brooklyn by 1 in the loss column.
The Bulls won the season series against the Nets and Hawks, so they'll win any tiebreaker with those teams. In their final eight games, the Bulls will face Orlando twice, Toronto twice, New York and Washington at home, Detroit and Miami on the road.
Brooklyn might have thought this game would be a breeze after jumping to leads of 18-4 and 26-11, then 36-20 midway through the second quarter.
The Bulls stabilized, then made their move late in the third quarter. A 3-pointer by Jimmy Butler with three seconds left in the third tied the score at 65-65. The visitors scored the first 6 points of the fourth quarter to go ahead 71-65.
"It's tough. This is a game that we desperately needed considering where we are in the standings at this point, and in the first half we were pretty good," Johnson said. "And in the second half I just didn't think we pushed the ball as much as we did in the first and play as loose as we did in the first and it hurt us."