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Without Rose, Bulls make statement in victory over Celtics

By K.C. Johnson, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — With the NBA’s best record, the Bulls know they can beat anybody.

(PHOTO: The Chicago Bulls’ Luol Deng (9) commits an offensive foul against the Boston Celtics’ Paul Pierce (34) in the first half at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois, on Thursday, February 16, 2012.)

Still, there are moments in any season where statements must be made. And, having dropped five of their last six games to teams in playoff position, Thursday night at United Center provided such a test.

The Bulls passed with more physical than flying colors, outlasting the Celtics, 89-80, in a defensive struggle that looked more like a playoff game than regular-season affair. Both teams shot just below 40 percent.

Luol Deng finished with 23 points and 10 assists, including five points in a 12-0 run that snapped a 69-69, fourth-quarter tie. And coach Tom Thibodeau rode fourth-string point guard Mike James — of all people — down the stretch with James delivering two assists in the game-changing spurt and playing physical defense on Rajon Rondo.

“I’m not going to let nobody smaller than me post me up,” James said. “I take pride in my defense.”

The Bulls improved to 7-2 without Derrick Rose, who sat for the fourth straight time with his sore lower back.

“He’s so competitive and wants to be out there so bad,” Deng said. “But I keep telling him, ‘You have to be smart. Don’t come back unless you’re 100 percent.’ We’re going to try to win until then.”

Carlos Boozer added 23 points, 15 rebounds and five assists and Joakim Noah contributed 15 points and 16 rebounds. The Bulls, after getting pushed around early, enjoyed huge advantages on the boards and second-chance points. Boozer, in particular, kept finding Noah inside for scores.

“Last year, (Noah and I) didn’t have a good chance to play with each other consistently until the playoffs,” Boozer said. “This year, we’ve played the whole year together. You can see how good our chemistry is. We make plays for each other and it’s usually either a dunk or a layup.”

Returning from a hip flexor injury, Kevin Garnett posted a double-double of 18 points and 10 rebounds for the Celtics.

The Celtics made one final push, pulling to within 84-78 on Paul Pierce’s free throw with 66 seconds remaining. But James, who played from the 9:51 mark until fouling out with 41.6 seconds left, powered into the lane and kicked a pass to the corner for Deng, who played the entire second half, to bury his sixth 3-pointer of the night.

“Mike was amazing, showed great poise,” Boozer said.

James finished with eight points and four assists in 17 minutes and also helped shift momentum late in the first half. Toiling in the Development League last week at age 36, James entered with 6:20 remaining because Rose sat, C.J. Watson had three fouls and Rondo had been posting up John Lucas III.

With the Bulls down seven, James blocked Rondo’s shot, scored on a drive and ran the offense smoothly. The Bulls closed the first half with a 22-5 run during which Noah scored eight points and Deng sank two 3-pointers.

“When we do get healthy, watch out,” Boozer said.

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