Bulls squeeze past Hornets 102-97

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The Bulls’ Fred Hoiberg coaches during Friday’s game. | Associated Press

There was a clear theme to coach Fred Hoiberg’s words after the Bulls’ Friday shootaround. He was asked about the competitive Eastern Conference race, a rematch with a Charlotte Hornets team that routed the Bulls and the looming circus trip, but a lot of his answers sounded similar.

He wanted the Bulls to focus on themselves and their effort.

“Listen, the big thing (Friday), you can talk about schemes… it’s about effort, it’s about communicating, it’s about doing the work early. It’s coming out of the locker room ready to play,” Hoiberg said. “We got smacked in the face last time, we didn’t handle it well. Never fought back from the adversity.”

Friday’s 102-97 win over the Hornets gave Hoiberg more of what he was looking for. Jimmy Butler led the Bulls with 27 points and they held the Hornets to 37.9 percent shooting. Joakim Noah, who was scratched Monday with a sore left knee, came off the bench and played 23 minutes and scored three points but grabbed 18 rebounds and handed out six assists.

“That’s Jo, man,” Derrick Rose said. “No matter what he does on the court we know that he’s going to always bring energy and give us second-chance shots like he did tonight.”

Leading 100-97 with 38 seconds left in the game, Butler dribbled the ball off his leg and out of bounds. On the ensuing possession, Jeremy Lamb’s missed 3-pointer was rebounded by Noah, followed by Butler’s jumper with 5.4 seconds left that rattled in to preserve the win.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was a bit closer to what Hoiberg spoke about earlier in the day.

“Today was definitely a step in the right direction, I guess, as far as that is concerned,” Hoiberg said. “Now we just have to continue that and keep it consistent.”

In that earlier matchup with Charlotte, the Bulls came out flat and were blown out 130-105. It was the worst performance of the Hoiberg era and was a blatant and extreme example of what can happen when a team comes out with nothing and plays poorly.

That’s something the Bulls need to avoid going forward especially as they head into the circus trip after Monday’s matchup with Indiana – a trip that includes a game against the defending-champion Golden State Warriors.  And regardless of the trip, they’re trying to keep pace in an East race that had only two teams more than a game below .500 entering play Friday.

But on Friday, there was at least some progress. The Bulls only allowed 97 points to a team that made 15 3-pointers and did enough offensively late to put away the Hornets.

No, it wasn’t pretty, but it showed a step forward.

“I think we improved tonight but we have to bring it again on Monday against Indiana,” Pau Gasol said. “I think improvement shows when you are able to do it for a month straight every single night, and that’s what we should strive for.”

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