NEW ORLEANS — Even if Derrick Rose wasn’t ready to return, the Chicago Bulls got healthier as a team over the All-Star break — and it showed.
Luol Deng scored 20 points, Kirk Hinrich returned from a seven-game absence with 10 assists, and the Chicago Bulls snapped a two-game skid with a 96-87 victory over the New Orleans Hornets on Tuesday night.
“We all needed a little break,” said Bulls power forward Carlos Boozer, who had 17 points, 10 rebounds and four steals. “(We needed to) get away from it, get rejuvenated, get recharged, especially mentally. Obviously, physically, too. We had a lot of guys who were banged up. Some of us are still banged up, but we’re playing through it.”
Chicago, which hopes Rose will return from last season’s left knee injury in time for the stretch run to the playoffs, has now gone 31-22 without him.
“We’re a complete team,” said Boozer, whose team plays next at home against first-place Miami on Thursday night. “We’ve got great players at each position.”
The Bulls took the lead for good late in the first quarter, but didn’t put the Hornets away until Deng’s clutch jumper from the top of the key with 44.8 seconds left put Chicago up 94-87 after the Hornets had pulled within five points on Eric Gordon’s 3-pointer.
Joakim Noah had 15 points and 17 rebounds for Chicago, which outrebounded New Orleans 47-39 and scored 15 second-chance points.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who like to get in there and bang and rebound,” Boozer said. “That’s one of our strengths.”
Gordon finished with 20 and Anthony Davis had 15 points and 10 rebounds for New Orleans, which saw its two-game winning streak snapped after committing nine of its 15 turnovers in the final quarter. Greivis Vasquez had 11 points and 10 assists for the Hornets.
“They had good ball pressure,” Hornets forward Jason Smith said of the Bulls’ fourth-quarter defense. “Hinrich, he played amazing defense. He played a hell of a game.”
Hinrich, who had not played since Jan. 30 because of a right elbow injury, accounted for a third of Chicago’s30 total assists to go with three steals.
“Kirk played huge for us today,” Noah said. “He does a lot of things that you don’t see in the stat sheet that really help our club. … He just brings a whole different dimension, his defensive intensity, his feel for the game when he calls plays, ball movement, everything. He’s a great player.”
The Bulls shot 46.4 percent (39 of 84). Deng, Boozer and Noah all shot 50 percent of better. Deng was 7 of 13 from the field, Noah 6 of 11 and Boozer 8 of 16.
“They were physically tougher than we were tonight,” Hornets coach Monty Williams said. “I won’t blame it on rust because four days off should help us. We just didn’t make plays tonight, and give them credit. They were physically in our face all night long.”
The Bulls led by as many as 12 points in the third quarter when Hinrich’s transition 3 and Boozer’s reverse layup made it 64-52, but the Hornets kept making it interesting, pulling within 74-68 on Ryan Anderson’s free throws in the final seconds of the period.
Early in the fourth quarter, reserve point guard Brian Roberts hit a jumper and 3 in succession, pulling New Orleans within 76-75, at which point Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau called timeout and told his players “just to play hard.”
“The level of intensity was very good,” Thibodeau said. “Our defense was solid. … We were not shortcutting things, making the extra pass, setting good screens. I thought overall it was very good.”
Chicago responded soon after with a key 6-0 spurt on Nate Robinson’s finger roll, Jimmy Butler’s layup after an offensive rebound and former Hornet Marco Belinelli’s free throws.
Davis’ dunk snapped the mini-run and New Orleans trailed 88-82 on Gordon’s driving layup with 3:48 left, but Boozer scored inside and Noah banked in a difficult jump hook to make it 92-82 with 2:53 left.
Chicago surged into the lead for good by closing out the first quarter with a 14-4 run that included Taj Gibson’s dunk and 3s by Belinelli and Deng, the latter making it 26-21.
Davis, who had a pair of crowd-pleasing dunks in the opening half — one in which he lifted off just inside the foul line and another one-handed throw-down of an alley-oop — closed out the first half with an even more impressive score, snagging a long pass from Vasquez, then quickly turning and banking in a short shot as he was shoved to the floor by Noah. Davis hit the ensuing free throw to trim Chicago’s lead to 47-43 at halftime.