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Rip Hamilton steps up to ease Bulls’ pain in win over Knicks

Bulls guard Richard Hamiltlooks move ball against Knicks guard Iman Shumpert first quarter Tuesday. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Bulls guard Richard Hamilton looks to move the ball against Knicks guard Iman Shumpert in the first quarter Tuesday. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 12, 2012 8:20AM

Taj Gibson had post position on New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith, but Rip Hamilton waved him off. For the first time since returning after missing his 37th game of the season because of injuries, Hamilton, the veteran guard, was feeling it.

He has impressed teammates with his unselfishness this season. This time, he wanted the ball.

The player acquired to share the scoring load with Derrick Rose took the Knicks’ Steve Novak off the dribble, scored on a pull-up jumper and drew the foul.

During Tuesday night’s 98-86 win at the United Center, for one of the few times this season, Hamilton showcased the overall game that made management believe he could help the Bulls leapfrog the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference.

‘‘That’s what I’ve been doing my whole career,’’ Hamilton said. ‘‘On this team, I’ve got to pick my moments. We’ve got so many guys that can score. It’s not all about me just scoring all the time. Sometimes it’s making plays and getting guys easy baskets. It’s just catching the rhythm of the game, knowing when they need me to score and when they need me to do other things.”

This was supposed to be step two of the battered backcourt’s 10-step recovery program before the playoffs begin. It was more time for Rose and Hamilton to get their timing back, their legs under them and find a rhythm with the teammates they have played with only sparingly this season.

Instead, it was back to square one after Rose was made inactive before the game after twisting his right ankle in Sunday’s loss to the Knicks.

The victory, coupled with the Boston Celtics beating the Heat, allowed the Bulls to maintain their two-game lead over their nemesis in the loss column. Rose could be ready to play as soon as Thursday when the Heat visits the United Center.

“He wanted to play, but we thought it was best that he didn’t,” coach Tom Thibodeau said of Rose.

The Bulls avoided the slow start that has plagued them this season, most recently in Sunday’s loss. They took the court with their signature energy, and all five starters had scored midway through the first quarter. The Bulls led 47-35 at the break before Hamilton scored 18 of his 20 points in the third period. He also had five assists and four rebounds in just over 20 minutes.

‘‘Tonight was a great night for Rip,” forward Carlos Boozer said. ‘‘He was hitting shots from everywhere. It was the first time we saw him that aggressive. He gave us a huge lift.’’

With Hamilton on the bench, Kyle Korver took over in the fourth. His effectiveness couldn’t be measured in three-pointers alone, either, although he nailed two while scoring 11 of his 14 points in the fourth. He also had seven rebounds and three blocks.

Luol Deng had 19 points and 10 rebounds for the Bulls. Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks with 29 points and has now scored 72 points in back-to-back games against the Bulls.

As for Hamilton, ‘‘the game is slowing down for him a little bit,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘He’s got a better feel for when the shot is there and when to play-make. He has been out a long time. Now he’s getting used to the contact and the pace of the game. He’s coming back to who he is.’’

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