For 48 blessed minutes of game action, the focus finally shifted from insubordination, oversleeping and off-the-court silliness to basketball.
For 48 minutes, the Bulls resembled the hard-working, scrappy bunch that used teamwork instead of tantrums to make a statement.
For 48 minutes, the Bulls offered belief.
Ending a five-game winning streak for a Western Conference power Tuesday night, the Bulls pulled to within a half-game for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot with a 108-96 victory over the Utah Jazz.
They did so with yet another game of balanced scoring and, finally, some hard-nosed defense. Drew Gooden's 24 points led six Bulls in double figures. And the Jazz, the league's best-shooting team, had to rally late to shoot 42.7 percent.
They did so with Thabo Sefolosha back — and effective — from injury and with Chris Duhon inactive as the final installment of his punishment for missing Sunday's shootaround and making flip comments about it.
Perhaps most tellingly, they did so with plays like this:
Tyrus Thomas missed a jumper, and Luol Deng chased and saved the long rebound while crashing into the scorer's table. Quick ball movement then led to a wide-open Larry Hughes sizing up and burying a three-pointer from the corner for a 17-point lead midway through the third quarter.
"This team desperately wants to make the playoffs," guard Kirk Hinrich said. "When we accept the challenge defensively and play together, good things happen."
Hinrich posted six assists to no turnovers, representative of the Bulls moving the ball well and safely. Yet the defensive end, which the Bulls treated as optional on the recent two-game trip, is where they really looked sharp.
Mehmet Okur's 22 points and 18 rebounds led Utah, which also received 20 points and 10 assists from former Illinois standout Deron Williams. Yet Carlos Boozer struggled to 10 points, and the Bulls forced Williams into six turnovers.
"We finally got a good defensive shell working," interim coach Jim Boylan said. "Every time Williams got in the paint, we had two or three guys around him."
Better on-the-ball defense, quicker rotations and more effective close-outs harassed the Jazz into seven straight misses and five turnovers before its first second-quarter field goal, 7:28 into the frame. The Bulls built a 15-point, first-half lead.
Sefolosha returned after missing six games with a groin injury to contribute his long-armed defense and also score 11 points with three assists.
"I thought Thabo changed the game in the first half with his energy," Boylan said.
Said Sefolosha: "I was happy I could contribute and got in the flow of the game. But it's not 100 percent yet."
With a third-quarter three-pointer, Ben Gordon, who scored 19, passed Michael Jordan for third place among franchise three-point leaders. What a concept: The Bulls making milestones instead of malarkey.
"When people question our team, we have guys who care about their craft," Boylan said. "I think you saw that. Guys were hurt. Nobody likes to see that stuff in the paper.
"We're a basketball team, not a soap opera. We're tired of all the distractions. We need to — and we will — concentrate on winning games and playing the right way for the Chicago Bulls. That's our purpose."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times