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Derrick Rose scores 39 points as Bulls struggle to put away Magic

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

ORLANDO, Fla. — A win is a win, as Derrick Rose said. But this one barely passed the smell test.

With another MVP-caliber performance by Rose, the Bulls won a close game on the road in a playoff atmosphere Sunday against a team they could see in the second round of the playoffs. It’s hard to argue with that three days before the end of the regular season.

The only catch is that there shouldn’t have been a playoff atmosphere at Amway Center. It shouldn’t have been that close. And it shouldn’t have taken an MVP-caliber performance by Rose to beat the Orlando Magic. Not with Dwight Howard nowhere near the building.

Rose scored 39 points on 13-for-17 shooting, including 3-for-5 from three-point range, in a 102-99 victory over the Magic that wasn’t over even after it was over.

Not until officials ruled that Jameer Nelson’s apparent game-tying three-point shot over Rose came a millisecond after the final horn were the Bulls (60-20) able to escape with the victory — their seventh in a row and 19th in their last 21 games.

But with Howard sitting out a one-game suspension for accruing too many technical fouls, Quentin Richardson suspended for an altercation with an opposing player and J.J. Redick sitting out with an abdominal strain, this was not a victory the Bulls were celebrating. Overcoming Ryan Anderson — the 6-10 third-year pro who scored a career-high 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in place of Howard — shouldn’t be this difficult.

‘‘They played extremely well, and it wasn’t a good game for us,’’ Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. ‘‘Our defense wasn’t very good. Our rebounding was below average. And we didn’t take care of the basketball. We were fortunate to win.’’

The Bulls continued an annoying habit over the last three weeks of playing to the level of their competition. Three days after outrebounding the Boston Celtics 44-35, they managed to outrebound the Howard-less Magic only 37-33 and committed 21 turnovers.

The Bulls led 9-2 after two minutes, 32-24 after one quarter and 43-32 in the second quarter but couldn’t pull away.

It was a performance that provoked a warning from their best player.

‘‘We had ’em. We should have easily put them away,’’ Rose said. ‘‘But we continue to let teams come back. It’s going to hurt us if we continue to do this. We’re definitely happy with this win, though.’’

Rose wasn’t as concerned that the Bulls struggled despite Howard’s absence.

‘‘A win is a win,’’ Rose said. ‘‘In this league, it’s hard to win even when the best player on the other team doesn’t play. Other players that come off the bench are playing for their opportunity. So sometimes it’s harder.’’

But he wasn’t buying the idea of a letdown after the Bulls clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night.

‘‘Not at all,’’ he said. ‘‘We’ve been doing this the whole year, where we get up on teams and let them come back. We’ve lost some like that. We’ve just got to learn how to put teams away.’’

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