In the third game of a four-game homestand against teams that are a combined 63 games under .500 and in a tight battle to squeeze into the final spots of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Bulls know it’s time to win.
“We talk about it,’’ coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Everybody knows what’s at stake right now. We lost some opportunities early in the season at home. There’s no denying that. So you have to protect home court, especially at this time of the season.’’
The protection plan delivered Monday as the Bulls notched a tight 109-102 victory against the Kings. The homestand wraps up against the Knicks on Wednesday.
“We played well for six minutes tonight,’’ Hoiberg said. “Luckily, it was the last six minutes. We finally got some urgency, got some stops and made plays on the other end.’’
The win kept the Bulls tied for the eighth and final playoff spot with the Pistons, who beat the Bucks 92-91. Hoiberg was pleased with the progress.
“Early in the year, I’m not sure we would have won this game,’’ he said. “We need to have that urgency for a longer stretch if we want to be successful. Hopefully, we will.’’
Adding to the relief, the Bulls welcomed back Pau Gasol, who missed four games with swelling in his right knee. Gasol joined Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy and Taj Gibson in what is basically the Bulls’ best lineup for only the second time in this injury-filled s-eason.
Despite being limited to 24 minutes, Gasol (14 points, 14 rebounds) came to the team’s rescue. With the Bulls trailing 95-90 in the fourth quarter, he helped spark a 10-0 run.
“I felt good, energized, moving pretty well, not too much out of shape,’’ Gasol said. “I’m glad I was very effective for the 24 minutes I played. I’m glad I was able to help the team win. We’ll see how the knee reacts. But so far, so good.’’
Butler (11 points, eight assists) and Dunleavy added clutch baskets down the stretch. Rose (18 points, 9-for-15) also helped.
The Bulls led by 12 midway through the third quarter before losing their grip.
Gibson had another energetic and productive night. He scored 18 points and had some fierce encounters with DeMarcus Cousins.
The Bulls also got some help off the bench from Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic and Justin Holiday. They combined for 31 points on 9-for-15 three-point shooting.
Beyond Joakim Noah, who’s out for the season after shoulder surgery, the Bulls’ rotation could be at full strength when E’Twaun Moore returns from a hamstring injury that will be re-evaluated next week.
If healthy, the Bulls, who had loftier goals when the season started, probably wouldn’t be your typical low seed. But that’s not what matters now.
“Yeah, that’s in the back of our heads,’’ Gibson said. “[But] there’s still a lot of games left. We’ve just got to focus on getting wins. We’ve just got to focus on us and the task at hand, one game at a time.’’
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