CHICAGO (AP) - The Chicago Bulls have had a difficult time putting away lesser opponents lately, and the bad habit nearly jumped up and bit them again on Saturday.
Derrick Rose scored 24 points, leading the Bulls to a 92-79 victory that extended the Cleveland Cavaliers' losing streak to 16 games.
Cleveland (8-35) has also lost 20 straight on the road, one shy of the franchise record. The Cavs last won away from Quicken Loans Arena on Nov. 9, with a 93-91 victory over New Jersey. They haven't won anywhere since a home win over the Knicks on Dec. 18.
Even though it turned out to be another Cleveland loss, coach Byron Scott was pleased by his team's effort - to a degree.
``Those guys in there are disappointed,' Scott said. ``I'm very pleased with the way we played. We played with heart.
``But as much as we needed to play as hard as we did tonight, it's still nothing. You still lose the ballgame.'
Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng scored 20 points apiece for Chicago, which blew most of a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter before pulling away again.
``We just relaxed a little bit,' said Bulls forward Kyle Korver, who scored 11 points. ``Our energy level just wasn't there for stretches during the game.
``We've got to get a little pep back in our step.'
Cleveland held the Bulls to four points in the first 7:02 of the fourth quarter, closing within two on a runner by Antawn Jamison with 4:37 to play. Chicago didn't make a field goal in the period until Rose's layup with 4:20 left.
Rose was fouled on the play and his free throw put Chicago up 80-75. One possession later, Korver hit his third 3-pointer of the game, pushing the lead to eight points.
Boozer's three-point play and Rose's jumper pushed the run to 11-0. Cleveland got no closer than 13 points the rest of the way.
``We were struggling to score,' Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. ``It was a low energy game. We were searching (for offense) and rebounding poorly.'
The Bulls stand third in the Eastern Conference, one game behind the Miami Heat, but have lost games to the Los Angeles Clippers, New Jersey Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and two games to the Charlotte Bobcats over the last few weeks. All those teams have losing records and in each contest, the Bulls were in position to put the game away before letting their opponent back in the game.
``Every team is good and the challenge for us is to be a 48-minute team,' Thibodeau said. ``You have to learn to play tough with the lead and we didn't do that. You usually get what you deserve in this league.'
Jamison led the Cavaliers with 31 points and 11 rebounds.
``If we continue to play this way, things could go our way,' said Jamison. ``Unfortunately, down the stretch miscommunication on the defense end (hurt us) and not great quality shots on offense.'
Cleveland lost 21 straight on the road from Jan. 13 to April 4, 2003. The Cavaliers ended up with the first pick in the draft that year after winning the NBA lottery. They used that selection to take LeBron James, the subject of so much scorn in Cleveland these days.
Cleveland's next game is Monday at New Jersey. The Cavaliers have lost 26 of their last 27 games since starting the season 7-9.
``I was really proud the way we played tonight defensively,' Scott said. ``We made some stops. We're getting better on that end of the floor and (did it tonight) against a very good basketball team.
The Bulls took a quick 12-2 lead before Cleveland closed within two late in the first period. Deng hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to end the quarter, putting Chicago up 22-17.
That turned out to be the start of a 17-2 run for the Bulls. The punchless Cavaliers started both the second and third periods by missing their first seven shots.
Chicago led by as many 20 points, but the Cavaliers mounted a rally in the second half of the third quarter, closing within seven points. But Rose hit a layup and Deng made his fourth 3-pointer, putting Chicago up 72-60.
``When we play a great team, (lapses) haven't been a problem,' said Deng. ``It's the below .500 teams that give us a problem. Teams are coming in here ready to play us. We can't allow ourselves to (let up) against teams.'
Boozer returned to the Chicago lineup after missing three games with a sprained left ankle. He was 8 for 18 from the floor and grabbed 10 rebounds.
``I was a little rusty,' said Boozer. ``I didn't have the lift I wanted to have. I couldn't rebound the way I wanted to. But I pushed through it.'
The Bulls lead the NBA in opponent field-goal percentage and the Cavaliers didn't do any harm to Chicago's ranking in that category. Cleveland shot 27 for 84 (32.1 percent) for the game.
Despite the poor shooting, the Cavaliers were able to climb back into the game thanks to their performance on the boards. Cleveland grabbed 18 offensive rebounds in the game and held a 15-5 edge in second-chance points.
J.J. Hickson led the way with 20 rebounds, 11 on the offensive end.
``Hickson crushed us on the boards,' said Thibodeau. ``He could have set a rebounding record today.'
Scott shook up the Cavaliers' starting lineup, inserting Daniel Gibson and Christian Eyenga in place of Alonzo Gee and Manny Harris.
``Manny and Christian are young guys still learning,' said Scott. ``They're doing some really good things when they're out there.'
Cavaliers guard Anthony Parker stayed behind in Cleveland to receive treatment for a lower back strain and missed Saturday's game. Parker aggravated the injury in the Cavaliers' loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday.
The injury-ravaged Cavaliers started the game without Parker, Anderson Varejao, Mo Williams and Leon Powe. They then lost starting point guard Ramon Sessions in the second quarter with a right abdominal strain.
Despite the injuries and the weight of 15 consecutive losses weighing on them, the Cavaliers nearly knocked off one of the East's elite clubs.
``Our guys were really competing tonight,' said Scott. ``With all our guys that are banged up and out of the lineup, I thought this was one of the best games we've played (as far as) being competitive.' Notes: The Cavaliers are now 0-13 when shooting under 40 percent from the floor this season. ... The Bulls improved to 30-14 on the season. Chicago didn't win its 30th game until Feb. 24 last season. The Bulls are a perfect 9-0 against the Central Division. The biggest roar of the night from the home crowd at the United Center came between the third and fourth quarters, when Chicago Bears mascot ``Staley Da Bear' ran onto the court to help ``Bennie the Bull' throw some footballs into the stands. The Bears host the Green Bay Packers in the widely-anticipated NFC Championship at Soldier Field in Chicago on Sunday. The Bulls played their 20th game since starting center Joakim Noah went down with a torn ligament in his right hand. They have gone 14-6 in his absence.
The Associated Press News Service
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