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Bulls still in thick of things in atrocious East

The Bulls’ Jimmy Butler drives around Nets’ Paul Pierce Wednesday He scored 15 points his return from an ankle injury.

The Bulls’ Jimmy Butler drives around the Nets’ Paul Pierce on Wednesday, He scored 15 points in his return from an ankle injury. | Getty Images

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Updated: January 28, 2014 6:32AM

The Bulls’ training room has started to become less crowded. Players are coming back, and the team is starting to look whole again — as much as it can without Derrick Rose.

The Bulls proved that Wednesday, when they throttled the Brooklyn Nets 95-78 with guard Kirk Hinrich (back) and swingman Jimmy Butler (ankle) making major impacts in their first game back from their injuries.

It was a positive sign for the Bulls (11-16), who are percentage points behind the Boston Celtics for eighth place in the Eastern Conference a third of the way through the season. It was the first time they had won back-to-back games since Nov. 16 and Nov. 18.

‘‘We’re tough,’’ Butler said. ‘‘We’re really hard to beat. When we’re guarding and executing and making shots — and not even if we make them, just taking the right ones — I feel like everybody knows that we can win these games.’’

Even without Rose, the Bulls can make a playoff push in the downtrodden East, provided the roster stays intact. And the victory Wednesday offered a rare time when coach Tom Thibodeau was willing to acknowledge that possibility.

And practice is how the Bulls can keep it going. Earlier in the week, when the statuses of Hinrich and Butler were uncertain, Thibodeau said what concerned him most was all the practice his injured players were missing. After the game Wednesday, he made reference to center Joakim Noah’s slow start being a result of missing most of training camp because of injury.

‘‘Teams that win big, they go hard,’’ Thibodeau said — unprompted — after the victory against the Nets. ‘‘They practice hard. They get themselves ready. They build rhythm. It’s cohesion, and it’s how you practice, too. It’s not just practice, but it’s how you practice. When you get into a game, everything is done with great intensity.’’

It wasn’t something new. In fact, Thibodeau says it every day. But it sounded a little less cliché, given the circumstances the Bulls have endured this season. Four of the Bulls’ five opening-day starters, including Rose, have been injured at some point this season.

Add in Hinrich’s recent back spasms, and the Bulls haven’t had much opportunity to practice together. Those who have had individual success this season, such as forward Taj Gibson, have benefitted from being healthy. Gibson had 20 points and eight rebounds against the Nets.

‘‘Taj is playing great because of this: He worked incredibly hard all summer,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘He, by far, has been our best practice player. Comes early, stays late, practices hard. I’m not surprised one bit that he had a great training camp, had a great preseason and has gotten off to a terrific start. I always say this: The magic is in the work.’’

NOTE: The Bulls assigned guard Marquis Teague to the Iowa Energy of the NBA Development League.

Teague, whom the Bulls drafted 29th overall out of Kentucky in 2012, was averaging 2.4 points and 1.5 assists in 19 games this season. He was with the Bulls for their game Wednesday against the Nets, but the return of Kirk Hinrich from injury and the recent emergence of D.J. Augustin made him expendable.


Twitter: @SethGruen

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