MILWAUKEE — Derrick Rose returned to the Bulls on Wednesday night but Taj Gibson and Pau Gasol stole the show in Chicago’s harder-than-it-needed-to-be 95-86 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks at the BMO Harris Bradley Centrer.
Rose, who missed the Bulls’ last two games after spraining both his ankles last Friday against Cleveland, played 31 minutes and scored 13 points while handing out seven assists. But Gibson and Gasol combined for 45 and were monsters on the boards, pulling down 10 and 14, respectively.
“We had a lot of guys step up tonight,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “You have to find ways to win and different guys are doing different things.”
The duo was especially tough on Milwaukee in the second half. Gasol scored 10 of his points in the third quarter, as the Bulls erased a four-point half time deficit, and pulled down four rebounds over the final 12 minutes.
“He’s probably a better rebounder late, when the game is on the line,” Thibodeau said. “He reads the ball well, he anticipates, he knows who is shooting. It’s one of his strengths. Everyone is different but he’s a big-time winner.
Chicago also got big plays from guards Jimmy Butler and Kirk Hinrich, who combined for 13 points in the final period, including a pair of 3-pointers from Hinrich.
In all, five players scored in double-figures for the Bulls, who have won three in a row.
“We’re finding our way and dodging bullets right now,” Thibodeau said. “We have a lot of good combinations out there right now, so I think we’re learning our strengths and weaknesses with guys playing with different guys.
“You need that over the course of a season.”
After allowing 53 first-half points, the Bulls defense clamped down over the final two quarters. Milwaukee missed its first five shots and 10 of its first 12 in the third, but closed the quarter within two thanks to a 3-pointer by shooting guard O.J. Mayo with seven seconds left.
The Bucks closed within a point with 5:31 left in the game when point guard Brandon Knight stole the ball from Rose and forward Giannis Antetokoumpo dunked to make it 79-78 but the Bulls answered with an 11-4 run to go up, 90-82 on two Gasol free throws with 1:39 left.
“He’s a dominant player,” Gibson said of Gasol, who joined the Bulls over the summer following a seven-year run with the Lakers. “I think he is one of the dominant bigs in the league. He is showing you right now that he still has it. No matter his age or what. He is still hungry.”
Milwaukee shot just 29 percent in the final quarter and hit at a 37 percent clip for the game, finishing 3 for 15 from beyond the arc. Knight had an especially frustrating night, going just 3 of 15 from the field to finish with 10 points.
Forward Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 13 points on 6 of 11 shooting and also pulled down eight rebounds.
“They’re a veteran club and we talked about them being able to turn it up a little bit and put pressure on us on both ends,” Bucks head coach Jason Kidd said. “You could see that in the third quarter, when we couldn’t get going on that pace or tempo. It was a two-point game and we were right there, but we sent them to the linel, they shot a lot of free throws and go into the bonus early.”
The Bucks made up somewhat for their shooting woes with a strong effort on the boards, pulling down 50 to Chicago’s 30 and holding an 18-7 advantage on the offensive end but Milwaukee was just eight of 19 on second-chance attempts.
“We missed a lot of easy attempts, me in particular, right at the basket” said center Larry Sanders, who was 3 for 9 and finished with nine rebounds. “If we were to make them, it would have been a totally different game.”
NOTES: Chicago was without C Joakim Noah, who missed his second consecutive game due to flu-like symptoms. … Milwaukee lost at home against the Bulls for the ninth consecutive time. Chicago took three of four from the Bucks overall last season, and the Bulls won or tied the season series five straight times. … The Bucks’ bench outscored Chicago’s, 50-13 Wednesday, and has outscored opponents 230-138 in five games this season.
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