With Derrick Rose sitting on the bench in his uniform and sweats Tuesday night, many in the crowd of 20,502 might not have known injury forced the rookie guard to miss his first game of the season.
But if the left-handed high-fives weren't enough of a giveaway, surely the brace protecting his severely bruised right wrist was.
Playoff races don't allow much time for pain or sympathy, and the Bulls knew they had an able substitute in their 99-91 victory over the Pistons anyway.
Kirk Hinrich — remember him? — stepped in and stepped up with 24 points, eight assists and three steals as the Bulls placed all five starters in double figures to close to within one game of the Pistons for seventh place in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The teams meet again in Detroit on April 13.
"In no way is Kirk a backup point guard," John Salmons said.
The Bulls, who got double-doubles from Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah, also increased their lead to two games over Charlotte for the eighth playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, no small detail considering the Bobcats own the tiebreaker. Milwaukee fell to 21/2 games back.
"We're just trying to get in and stay in," Ben Gordon said. "We're more focused on playing quality basketball."
The Bulls did that, thanks mostly to Hinrich. To some fans, the sixth-year veteran has become an expensive backup, but his energy and leadership recalled why he had started 96.7 percent of his career games before this season.
"It has been challenging at times," Hinrich admitted. "I've been playing well but in somewhat limited minutes. I'm just trying to do whatever I can to help us get in the playoffs because that's everybody's goal."
That included him penetrating and kicking out to Salmons for a three-pointer and 86-71 lead with 8 minutes 27 seconds left.
"It shows the professionalism of Kirk playing the way he did," coach Vinny Del Negro said. "He gave us a huge, huge lift."
Tied 43-43 at halftime, the Bulls first began pulling away with a 10-0, third-quarter run that featured three straight Pistons turnovers and Thomas scoring four of his 18 points. Thomas also had 12 rebounds and five assists for his third double-double in four games.
Tayshaun Prince and Chicago native Will Bynum scored 20 each to lead Detroit, which played without Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Allen Iverson.
With Rose out, Hinrich, Salmons and Ben Gordon all logged 46 minutes. But they still managed to enjoy some laughs.
Gordon threw a lob pass to Brad Miller early in the fourth that the veteran center, um, leaped to catch. Miller, of course, laid the ball in rather than dunking it and both players chuckled as they ran downcourt.
That's what happens when playoff races start turning favorably: Pain cedes to laughter.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times