ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 25: Joakim Noah #13 of the Chicago Bulls shoots against Elton Brand #42, and Shelvin Mack #8 of the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on February 25, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Updated: February 25, 2014 11:24PM
ATLANTA – It wasn’t supposed to be a fight.
Come into Atlanta, beat a Hawks team that had lost eight of their last nine games, strut out of Philips Arena, and enjoy the flight home.
There weren’t supposed to be sighs of relief around the locker room, and battle wounds on the upper body of Joakim Noah in the form of scratches.
“We’re just trying to find a way,’’ Noah said, after Tuesday’s 107-103 Bulls win. “They really wanted that game, and we wanted it too. It wasn’t pretty at times, but I’m just happy we were able to come out with the win.’’
And body parts mostly intact.
Since coming out of the All-Star Break, the intensity of teams battling for position in the Eastern Conference has been obvious, starting last week in Toronto and continuing against the Hawks. While the games might not be aesthetically pleasing, according to coach Tom Thibodeau, go ahead and throw that concept right out the window.
“The end game is getting the win,’’ Thibodeau said. “Whatever you’re facing you have to be prepared to deal with that and deal with that efficiently.’’
A concept the Bulls (30-26) had trouble grasping at times. Luckily, against a team like the Hawks there was room for forgiveness and plenty of mistakes.
Trailing 103-101, Kirk Hinrich drew a questionable foul on a three-point attempt, and with 40.8 seconds left made all three to give the Bulls the 104-103 lead.
It appeared Atlanta (26-30) got the lead back on a three-pointer by Mike Scott, but Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer had called a timeout before the shot was released. The Hawks then turned the ball over on a Hinrich steal with 23 seconds left, but rather than step on their throats, the Bulls let the Hawks breath.
Mike Dunleavy’s inbound pass to Noah was stolen, giving Atlanta a chance to take the lead. One problem – it’s the Hawks.
So of course Jeff Teague stepped out of bounds dribbling underneath the basket. Hinrich was fouled with 11 seconds left, and after making both the Bulls were still clinging to the three-point lead.
After the timeout, Scott attempted a game-tying three that was stymied by Noah, giving Hinrich the chance to ice the game by splitting his two free throws with 4.7 seconds left.
“ ‘Kirkie’ was huge,’’ Noah said. “He hit big free throws, a steal. That was huge for this team. He brings that energy on the defensive end, and just makes sure that everyone is in the right spot on offense. He’s playing real confident, playing good basketball for us and that’s huge.’’
Noah wasn’t so bad himself, however, finishing with 20 points and 12 rebounds.
“To me, at the end of a game, particularly one in which we didn’t play great, doing whatever is necessary in order to win is the important thing,’’ Thibodeau said. “We’ve got to scratch them out, that’s what we’ve got to do.’’
Or at least get scratched up trying.