Early Friday night, new Bulls Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden were sharing their experience of starting for the Cavaliers in last year's NBA Finals, and that destination seemed like a faraway dream.
Then, with those two and Shannon Brown and Cedric Simmons watching in street clothes, Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah offered a glimpse of the future in a 135-121 victory over the Nuggets in as wild and spirited a game as the United Center faithful have viewed all season.
Not since Jan. 4, 1991, had the Bulls scored this many points. Not since Feb. 18, 1997 had the Bulls scored 30 or more points in all four quarters. Not all season had all five starters reached double figures. The Bulls also set a league season high with 56 field goals.
It's funny: So many critics accused Ben Wallace of playing little defense during his Bulls tenure. Apparently, he played a role in stopping Thomas and Noah.
Playing major minutes, those two set the tone early, and Ben Gordon scored 16 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter to hold off an incredible performance by J.R. Smith.
The onetime Bullfor six daysdrained an opponent-record seven fourth-quarter three-pointers as part of his career-high 43 points, 23 of which came in the fourth.
Yet Gordon answered all of Smith's barrages, including scoring 10 and feeding Noah for a dunk to cap a 14-3 run after Smith sank another three to drop what was once a 23-point Nuggets deficit to 111-107.
"That was sick, like a pick-up game," Gordon said.
Thomas soared for a swooping dunk on the opening possession, hit his first six shots and finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks.
"That was the best game I've seen Tyrus play all-around," interim coach Jim Boylan said. "Not just because he was hitting shots but his attention to detail, his close-outs on [Marcus] Camby. He responded."
Noah joined Thomas and Kirk Hinrich (16 points, 14 assists) to post a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds as seven of the mere 10 Bulls in uniform reached double figures.
"Joakim played with spirit," Boylan said.
The Bulls opened with an 11-1 run and closed a season-high-tying 68-point first half with a 13-0 run.
Talk about a youth movement: Thursday's three-team, 11-player deal that sent Wallace, Joe Smith and Adrian Griffin packing left Hughes, at a tender 29, as the Bulls' elder statesman.
Both Hughes and Gooden expressed excitement over the trade, even if it meant leaving LeBron James and the defending conference champions for an underachieving squad.
"It's no secret my style of play didn't fit the system I was playing in," Hughes said. "I felt I could be more productive. I wanted to build on the last two seasons I had in Washington. I didn't feel like I was doing that in Cleveland.
"I know how to play basketball. I'm able to relay what I've learned through my years of being on different teams to everybody. I definitely think I can bring some confidence. And confidence can take you a long way."
Said Gooden: "One thing we learned is about competing. You can run all the plays you want to, say all the things you want to, at the end it's about fighting. That's what helped us get to the Finals."
The new Bulls probably won't practice Saturday as the 11 players involved in the three-team trade wait for the league to approve their physicals.
Boylan did say they might play Sunday in Houston.
At this rate, who needs them?
Bulls 135, Nuggets 121
Energetic Bulls hold off Nuggets
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