The Brooklyn Nets have managed to maintain their lead on a top-four spot in the Eastern Conference despite a lengthy road trip and Joe Johnson's five-game absence due to injury.
Health problems and road woes have hurt the Chicago Bulls' chances of catching them.
The status of Johnson and fellow starter Gerald Wallace is uncertain for the Nets' return home Thursday night to face the injury-plagued Bulls.
Brooklyn (43-31) went 5-3 during its longest road swing of the season, capping it Wednesday by avoiding a third straight loss with a 113-95 blowout of Cleveland.
"I would have taken a (one-point win), no questions asked when the game started," interim coach P.J. Carlesimo said. "To get a win where we were able to rest guys, you probably couldn't have written a better script."
MarShon Brooks led the way with a career-high 27 points on 12-of-16 shooting and Deron Williams contributed 24 while Johnson (bruised quad, sore heel) and Wallace (sore foot) sat out.
"The No. 1 thing is just getting guys healthy and seeing who's available," Carlesimo said before Wednesday's victory. "We've got to get through these next couple (of games) and hopefully we can take a deep breath and get situated."
The win over Cleveland and Atlanta's loss to New York on Wednesday moved the Nets two games ahead of the Hawks and 2 1/2 ahead of the idle Bulls (40-33) for fourth place in the East.
Chicago hasn't helped itself by dropping seven of nine on the road, and it lost another player in a 90-86 loss at Washington on Tuesday.
Taj Gibson re-aggravated a left knee injury that caused him to miss 10 games from Feb. 26-March 18.
"I just did a basic rotation and tried to slide, and it just buckled on me," Gibson said. "It was real painful. I tried to just play through it. I kind of got nicked up the last couple of games but kept playing.
"Hopefully it's not worse than before. But it was real painful. It's similar."
If he can't go Friday, Gibson would join Derrick Rose (knee), Joakim Noah (foot), Richard Hamilton (back) and Marco Belinelli (abdominal strain) on the list of Bulls forced to sit out with injuries.
"It's definitely another big blow," guard Kirk Hinrich said. "But we've got to hang together and find some healthy bodies. They guys that are out there have got to step up more. We've been short-handed all year. It's nothing new to us."
Noah proved pivotal in the Bulls' 96-85 win over Brooklyn on March 2 as he had 21 points on 10-of-13 shooting and 10 rebounds. Carlos Boozer contributed 20 points in his team's second victory in three matchups with the Nets this season.
Belinelli scored six points in the final 1:26 in an 83-82 home win Dec. 15.
The Bulls lost 93-89 in their first visit to Brooklyn on Feb. 1 as Brook Lopez scored 20 points in three quarters.
Boozer was forced to miss that game with an ailing hamstring. He's averaged 25.8 points on 67.9 percent shooting in his last four road games against the Nets. Boozer has six double-doubles in his last seven games overall.
Lopez and Williams keyed the Nets' solid play on the road trip, averaging 21.9 and 21.3 points, respectively.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved