By Sam Smith
Tribune pro basketball reporter
9:08 PM PST, March 31, 2006
Hey, at this time of the season, you take anything you can get.
The Bulls took advantage of the Bobcats taking the first half off Friday night. They built a 26-point lead just after halftime and held on for a 113-107 victory.
"We played very well in the first half, they played very well in the second," Bulls coach Scott Skiles said. "We were fortunate enough to have a big lead."
The Bobcats, who had beaten the Bulls two of three times this season, spent the first half launching jump shots and admiring the way the Bulls retrieved them, ran down court and scored.
The display of teamwork and effort was as impressive as any the Bulls have shown all season. It resulted in a 67-43 halftime lead on the strength of 30 field goals off 20 assists and a 61.2 shooting percent. Much of their precision shooting was inside; they outscored the Bobcats 44-14 in the lane in the half.
"I didn't feel like they were into it in the first half," Skiles said of the Bobcats.
Charlotte used a lineup primarily of guards in the second half to get the Bulls' lead below 10 points late in the third quarter and several times midway in the fourth. But the Bulls repeatedly got big baskets and plays from Andres Nocioni and two three-pointers from Chris Duhon to avoid another meltdown.
"I played a good game," said Nocioni, who had his second consecutive game of at least 20 points and 10 rebounds with 24 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks. "But I am so happy because the team won. This is the most important thing to get to the playoffs."
The victory kept the Bulls from losing ground to the Philadelphia 76ers, who beat New York 117-112 to maintain their 1½-game lead over the Bulls for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
This was a game that looked easy for the Bulls, though many have.
The Bobcats came out hitting jumpers and took a 21-17 lead. The Bulls called a timeout and came out with a 14-0 run behind Michael Sweetney's effective work inside against Charlotte's slighter defenders and several sharp moves by Luol Deng, who finished with 21 points.
"I sprinkled magic dust on them and they took off," Skiles joked. "Actually, I don't remember what I said."
The Bulls shot 65 percent in the second quarter with eight different players scoring. When Duhon, who had 19 points and six assists to equal Kirk Hinrich, opened the second half with a jumper, the Bulls were ahead 69-43 and seemingly headed to an easy victory.
But those don't happen with this Bulls team.
"Everybody is thinking about that," Nocioni said. "We have lost a lot of games at the end by a few points. Sometimes we have pressure in the last five minutes.
"It happened today too. Everybody needs to play and relax and make free throws and open shots. We all have pressure. But we are professionals."
With Emeka Okafor and Sean May out most of the season, the Bobcats often go to small, almost all-guard lineups. They came storming back behind Jumaine Jones (28 points) and Gerald Wallace (26).
They closed to 95-86 with just more than five minutes left on a short Jones jumper, but Nocioni pried the ball loose from Ray Felton and Duhon hit a three in transition. After Felton made one of two free throws, Duhon hit another three after Deng rebounded a Ben Gordon miss. That 101-87 lead with just less than four minutes left was enough to hold on as the Bulls sank 8 of 10 free throws in the last 95 seconds.
"They fouled us, we made free throws and were able to get a couple of baskets when it was starting to get tight," Skiles said. When they started getting after us in the second half we didn't handle it very well. But we got the win."
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