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Bulls have defensive trouble early, but hold off Raptors for win

The Bulls know better than to say it too loudly around coach Tom Thibodeau, but whispers around the team are that they can win even when they don’t have their best defensive game.

In the first half Monday against the Eastern Conference-leading

Toronto Raptors at the United Center, the Bulls were the kind of bad

defensively that could cause Thibodeau to lose his voice. But their

offense was so explosive in a 129-120 victory that it left even Thibodeau saying, ‘‘I don’t care how we win.’’

After missing two games with an illness, Derrick Rose looked like his old self in his return to the lineup. He scored 15 of his team-leading 29 points during a 49-point fourth quarter, the highest-scoring quarter in franchise history.

The game was a reminder this Bulls team isn’t the same as the ones that sometimes struggled to score in the past. The 2014-15 Bulls have

numerous scoring threats, including the emerging Jimmy Butler. Though he wasn’t able to match his 30-plus-point efforts of the last two games, Butler added 27 points and grabbed a team-leading 11 rebounds.

The Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are regarded as the NBA’s best backcourt, but Rose and Butler looked the part against the Raptors.

Afterward, Rose said he didn’t think there was any doubt the Bulls are capable of winning more high-scoring games.

‘‘We have guys who you haven’t even seen as far as their [offensive] game,’’ Rose said. ‘‘Jimmy surprised everybody this year. Nobody knew he could play the way he is playing right now. We have a deep squad.’’

That depth is magnified by a versatility that allows Thibodeau to use his lineup in a number of ways. Against the Raptors, he countered their smaller lineup by moving Butler to small forward and playing Rose and backup point guard Aaron Brooks together.

Not only did that serve a defensive purpose by getting quicker players on the floor, but the three sparked the Bulls offensively with their ability to break down Raptors defenders off the dribble. Brooks scored eight of his 15 points in the fourth quarter.

‘‘When guys get on a groove on this team, in this league, it’s hard to turn them off,’’ Butler said.

The Bulls got a taste of that, too. The Raptors dominated the paint in a 33-point first quarter, enabling their shooters to get more open looks. By the second half, though, the Bulls’ defense looked much more Thibodeau-esque. The Bulls yielded only 17 points in the third quarter.

Had it not been for some lax defense down the stretch, the final score would have been more lopsided.

‘‘Low scoring, high scoring, medium scoring — just win,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘We were concerned with how they were playing, and they played extremely well.

‘‘That group at the end gave us a good lift. We have great versatility. We have guys who can play multiple positions, and that allows us to play multiple combinations.’’

NOTE: Guard Kirk Hinrich suffered a strained left hamstring. The Bulls said he was questionable to return, but he didn’t.


Twitter: @SethGruen