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Way back during training camp in October, some people cringed when Drew Gooden called this Bulls season a rebuilding year.
There are two problems with that reaction: Gooden is right, and a team can make the playoffs while rebuilding, particularly in a weakened Eastern Conference.
Heck, schedule the woeful Kings more often — the Bulls beat them 99-94 Tuesday night — and a .500 mark might not be out of the question.
"People gave me [grief] about calling it a rebuilding year, but it was because everything was new to us," Gooden said. "We had a rookie point guard who was going to be a leader for us, a new coach, and guys were going to have different roles.
"We've had a little slippage here of late. But we can make that back up and be in good position for the playoffs."
Calling the recent stretch of six losses in seven games and three consecutive dreadful performances "a little slippage" is like saying Gooden's beard is normal. Even in victory, the Bulls weren't exactly doing cartwheels over their performance.
"We still don't have our energy," coach Vinny Del Negro said. "We're not sharp or crisp right now. That needs to get better."
Indeed, the Bulls shot 38.6 percent, their third straight game below 40, and found themselves in a one-possession game with less than 10 seconds to play against a team that has lost 12 straight road games.
But Kevin Martin, who led the Kings with 29 points, inexplicably drove for a layup that he missed with 5.9 seconds left. Thabo Sefolosha tacked on two free throws for the final margin.
"That was an ugly win," Gooden said. "We made a lot of mistakes in the fourth quarter that let them back in. We fouled jump shooters. We didn't make the easy play offensively. We have things to work on."
Derrick Rose's lean-in bank shot with 33.4 seconds left pushed the Bulls ahead 95-91. Martin made the final two of three free throws with 21.9 seconds left after Larry Hughes fouled him on a three.
Gooden, fouled intentionally, split two free throws with 21.2 seconds left. Tyrus Thomas fouled Martin with 13.9 seconds left, and he made the first free throw, missed the second — and then missed a short baseline jumper after Brad Miller rebounded his free throw.
Then Gooden split two free throws with 9.1 seconds left, setting up Martin's brain cramp.
The Bulls flirted with establishing a franchise record for free-throw perfection by making their first 29. The record was set Feb. 9, 1977, when the Bulls sank all 25 in a loss at Houston.
But Hughes missed the second of two with 61 seconds left, and the Bulls settled for a 33-for-36 night. That and 17 offensive rebounds that led to a 20-4 edge in second-chance points saved the Bulls.
Ben Gordon's 24 points led the Bulls, who also got 16 points and eight assists from Rose and a double-double from Gooden (18 points, 10 rebounds).
"We needed this badly," Rose said. "This was huge. Now we just have to keep it going."