CHICAGO — There was a strange clash of matchups at the start of this game. The Brooklyn Nets stuck with a three-guard lineup against the active big men of the Chicago Bulls.
By the end of the night, Chicago produced a 45-27 rebounding advantage and pulled away late to post a 92-76 victory over the Nets on Thursday night at the United Center.
Bulls forward Taj Gibson, a Brooklyn native, returned to a bench role Thursday after starting the previous three games in place of forward Carlos Boozer. Gibson led the Bulls with 16 points, while Boozer had a nice return from a left calf strain, producing 15 points and 10 rebounds. Center Joakim Noah, meanwhile, had 14 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists.
“I just play off Joakim, our point center, and go from there,” Boozer said. “He’s just a great passer, man. When we get the ball to Jo, our offense runs a lot smoother.”
Forward Mike Dunleavy and guard Jimmy Butler added 14 points each for the Bulls, who head into the All-Star break on a three-game winning streak.
The Bulls (27-25) are two games over .500 for the first time since they were 6-4 in November.
“The rebounding was the difference tonight,” Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau said. “The depth up front, we really have three starters and they all have to sacrifice for the team and I think that’s one of our strengths.”
Both two teams are hovering near .500, but at the start of the day, the Nets had the best record in the Eastern Conference since Jan. 1, 14-5, while the Bulls were third at 14-7. The Indiana Pacers ranked second during that timeframe at 15-6.
Brooklyn (24-27) trailed by 12 points late in the third quarter before making a run.
A 3-pointer by forward Andrei Kirilenko brought the Nets within 75-72 with 6:29 remaining in the game. Chicago guard D.J. Augustin answered with a 3-pointer to spark a 9-0 run.
While Brooklyn came up empty on its next four possessions, the Bulls extended their lead. Noah hit a running hook shot, then Gibson’s corner jumper put Chicago ahead 84-72 with 3:19 remaining.
Forward Paul Pierce led the Nets with 15 points, while guard Deron Williams added 13 points and guard Joe Johnson scored 11.
“We’ve run into bigger teams like this and we have beaten some bigger teams,” Brooklyn coach Jason Kidd said. “We just need to learn to be consistent, especially rebounding the ball.”
Brooklyn beat the Charlotte Bobcats at home Wednesday, then beat a snowstorm out of town. The Nets are just 2-10 in the second leg of back-to-back games this season, 0-6 when that second game is on the road.
The Bulls and Nets met in the first round of the playoffs last season, and even though there are plenty of new faces on both sides, things got testy in the third quarter.
First, Butler and Johnson got into a mild skirmish, and both players were given technical fouls. The argument started when Johnson was called for an offensive foul against Butler.
“I don’t say too much, so if I’m mad you must have really done something to get underneath my skin,” Butler said. “He poked me in the head, then backed backwards. I don’t play to fight, but come on man, just play basketball.”
A few minutes after the Butler-Johnson altercation, Pierce caught Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich with an elbow and was called for an offensive foul. Pierce disagreed with the call and was given a technical for arguing.
“Yes, this was a tough game for us,” Pierce said. “We fought hard, but our offense often dictates our defense. We just need to play better defense when Kevin (Garnett) comes out of the game.”
The Bulls opened a 33-19 lead early in the second quarter, then scored just six points over the next four minutes. Brooklyn closed the gap to six points in the second quarter, then pulled within 56-53 with 7:59 left in the third on two Pierce free throws.
Chicago answered with a 6-0 run, going inside for baskets from Noah and Boozer, and built the advantage back to 69-61 heading into the fourth quarter.
NOTES: Chicago F Carlos Boozer returned to the lineup Thursday after missing three games with a left calf strain. Boozer remained in the starting lineup, even though F Taj Gibson played well while starting in Boozer’s place. “For us to achieve what we want to achieve, Carlos has to play. He’s got a big role on this team,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. … Brooklyn G Marquis Teague returned to Chicago for the first time since being traded from the Bulls to the Nets for F Toko Shengelia on Jan. 21. Teague did not play Thursday. .. Thibodeau said he expects G Derrick Rose to miss the entire season recovering from right knee surgery, even though Rose has left the door open for a return. … Shengelia and Brooklyn F Reggie Evans were not with their respective teams due to personal reasons.
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