By Mike McGraw
The Bulls had a terrible start and a rough finish Wednesday night in Orlando. They also played without Joakim Noah, who stayed at the hotel with flu-like symptoms.
But they did have one sort of numbers advantage. During an ugly loss to Charlotte on Monday, the Bulls' defense was consistently broken down by the Bobcats' four small guards.
The same thing happened against Orlando. The difference was the Magic had just one high-scoring small guard. Jameer Nelson scored 32 points, and it wasn't enough as the Bulls pulled out a 96-94 bounce-back victory at the Amway Center.
Carlos Boozer scored a season-high 31 points. Taj Gibson, starting in place of Noah, hit a season high with 21 points, and Luol Deng added 23.
Richard Hamilton and Kirk Hinrich, back after a game off with a sore left knee, combined for 17 assists. The Bulls finished with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 27-7.
"Our defense is still not good," coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters after the game. "I thought offensively, we played with a lot of energy. The ball was hopping. Guys were making the extra pass to each other, playing with high energy. So that part was good."
At the start of the game, Orlando knocked down its first 6 shots and led 13-4. In the fourth quarter, the Bulls hit just 5 of 17 shots and had two offensive lulls that could have been costly.
In between those two segments, though, they did plenty of things well and built a 76-58 advantage with 4:39 left in the third quarter.
"We were down a lot of guys and we have guys banged up," Gibson said. "We just have to come together as a whole and try to take each game one at a time. The way we got it down in the second half and in particular in the last quarter speaks volumes."
Nelson, who drilled 6 baskets from 3-point range, went on a personal 9-0 run after the Bulls' lead hit 18. The Bulls still seemed to be in control after a Boozer lay-in made it 86-75 with 8:56 left.
Then came the first offensive drought. The Bulls didn't score for nearly four minutes, and Orlando closed within 86-84 when center Nikola Vucevic tipped in the second of his own misses with 5:20 left.
The Bulls (17-13) responded with some good passing and got a Gibson dunk off a feed from Deng. After Hinrich free throws, a Boozer scoop and Hamilton jumper, the Bulls were back up by 10 with 3:34 remaining.
But they failed to score on the next five possessions. A corner 3-pointer by Arron Afflalo brought Orlando within 94-92 with 46 seconds left, and the Magic got a chance to tie or take the lead after Hinrich's driving layup was blocked.
Nelson got 2 shots off, but the first was blocked by Gibson out of bounds and the second, a running bank, was off the mark. Deng added 2 free throws to clinch the win.
"We did a god job at the end being resilient," Boozer said. "We did a good job when we needed to of getting stops at the very end."
Orlando (12-20) lost its seventh straight game, a streak that has coincided with a shoulder injury to forward Glen Davis. Five of the losses have been by 4 points or fewer.
Indiana rescheduled: The Bulls' game at Indiana that was postponed by a snowstorm Dec. 26 has been rescheduled for Mon., Feb. 4, at 6 p.m.