ATLANTA – Tom Thibodeau’s beloved second unit separates the Bulls from the rest of the NBA as much as anything outside of Derrick Rose. So with Rose still sidelined with a groin injury, Thibodeau turned to Taj Gibson, John Lucas and Co. to snap his team out of an energy funk Wednesday night against the Atlanta Hawks.
After the starters recovered from an early eight-point deficit to take the lead late in the first quarter, Luol Deng teamed with Gibson, Lucas, Kyle Korver and Omer Asik to put the Bulls back on the fast track that earned them the best record in the NBA and turn a close game into a 98-77 blowout at Philips Arena.
‘‘They’re so awesome; we’ve got the best bench in the league,” said Carlos Boozer, who scored 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds. ‘‘They come in super-aggressive from the point guard to the center. John Lucas, he’s our third point guard, but he’s got so much game. It’s just fun to watch him play. That goes for everybody – Kyle, Taj, Omer. They’d all be starters on other teams.”
Deng made his first five three-pointers to break out of a 4-for-27 slump and led the Bulls with 22 points, but he did most of his damage with the second unit. Deng (two), Lucas (two) and Korver (one) combined to make 5 of 5 three-pointers, and Gibson shut down Hawks forward Josh Smith to spark runs of 11-0 and 12-0 in the first half as the Bulls turned a 23-17 deficit into a 54-36 lead.
Lucas made a jumper just 18 seconds after entering the game in the second quarter, and Korver made a nice pass to Asik for a dunk moments later as the Bulls scored the first seven points of the second quarter to take a 28-23 lead with a wave of momentum. Lucas scored all 10 of his points in the second quarter.
‘‘The second unit really got it going our way in the second quarter,” Thibodeau said. ‘‘Taj and Omer did a great job defensively. The bench was great.”
Gibson was particularly effective. He not only scored 19 points and grabbed six rebounds but helped turn the tide by putting the clamps on Smith in the first half. Smith scored nine points on 4-for-6 shooting in the first nine minutes. Against Gibson, he was 0-for-4 in the first half and 4-for-15 the rest of the way to finish with 19 points.
‘‘I just tried to slow him down; he’s a phenomenal player,” Gibson said. ‘‘I’ve played against him many times. I know he’s going to get his shots. I just tried to frustrate him a little bit, if anything. Try to bring energy, and tonight it worked.”
After the Hawks closed the gap to 56-52 early in the third quarter, the starters helped regain control. Joakim Noah scored twice and Deng made his fourth and fifth three-pointers in a 12-0 run that gave the Bulls a 74-56 lead with 1:12 left in the quarter.
‘‘We played great,” Deng said. ‘‘The thing we did well was even in the third quarter when they made their run, we responded well right away. We didn’t hang our heads. The second unit was big tonight again. Omer and Taj were huge in the back. Just a great team effort tonight.”