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John Lucas leads depleted Bulls

John Lucas who was Bulls’ go-guy Wednesday against Hehad team-high 24 points 9-for-12 shooting. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

John Lucas, who was the Bulls’ go-to guy Wednesday against the Heat, had a team-high 24 points on 9-for-12 shooting. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 16, 2012 8:28AM

The strongest argument for keeping the Bulls’ roster intact with Thursday’s 2 p.m. trade deadline looming was made Wednesday night at the United Center.

Beating the Heat had become difficult enough with Derrick Rose. Without him, the Heat’s much-anticipated first appearance in Chicago since eliminating the Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals last season looked like a mismatch. Instead, the Bulls’ thrilling 106-102 victory was perhaps the greatest testament to the team’s extraordinary depth.

The Bulls compensated for the obvious talent gulf with depth, intensity, relentless rebounding and lights-out shooting from three-point range.

The Bench Mob outscored Miami’s reserves 56-15. The Bulls outrebounded the Heat 50-34.

“This is a great testament to our team,” Taj Gibson said. “Everybody from top to bottom is humble and team-oriented. We don’t have any animosity. Everybody is always building each other up.”

John Lucas was the Bulls’ go-to offensive threat during long stretches and finished with 24 points, including two free throws with six seconds left to seal it.

Gibson is often mentioned in possible deals. He picked up where he left off in the fourth quarter of Monday night’s win over the Knicks with eight points and eight rebounds. Rookie Jimmy Butler contributed on both ends, even when guarding LeBron James, who finished with 35 points.

Not only was Rose out, but the team’s two other primary scorers — Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer —combined for only 13 points.

“For fans, it’s easy to get caught up in stats and what people could do,” Kyle Korver said of trade speculation. “I understand it. We didn’t win last year, and until we do, there will be doubters. But we all believe in each other, and we love playing together. Our chemistry is so good on the floor. We genuinely like each other.”

Anybody who saw Rose shuffling down the hallway outside the locker room before the game knew he wasn’t going to play before coach Tom Thibodeau made it official. Rose has a strained groin that Thibodeau said wasn’t the result of any one play against the Knicks but rather a “compilation of things over time.”

He is listed as day-to-day, which, if we’ve learned anything this season, means he could play against Portland on Friday or not until sometime next month.

“It was unbelievable,” Deng said. “A lot of people would worry hearing Derrick would miss the game, but everyone in the locker room stepped up and took on the challenge.”

James dominated the first quarter with 14 points, but the Bench Mob helped the Bulls outscore Miami 34-19 in the third quarter with unbelievable energy on both ends of the court.

The Bulls’ ferocious play was epitomized by Joakim Noah blocking a shot by Dwyane Wade, then dunking on Joel Anthony on the Bulls’ ensuing trip down the floor. That put the Bulls up by 12 with 4:35 left in the second quarter, had the United Center crowd in an ear-bleeding frenzy, Boozer pumping his fist and Noah leaping into teammates coming off the bench.

The frenzied crowd helped the Bulls maintain that momentum until the end.

‘‘The city of Chicago wanted this matchup more than we did,” Gibson said. “They were amped up.”

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Bulls have won 49 straight games when leading after the third quarter. Next on the list are the Atlanta Hawks — with 16.

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