CHICAGO (AP)—LeBron James was doing his usual thing—driving for dunks, connecting from the outside and leaving the helpless opposition behind.
The Chicago Bulls refused to go away.
“I felt we did a good job keeping our composure,” Chicago’s Ben Gordon said. “That wouldn’t have happened earlier in the season. We didn’t let it phase us. We came back and regrouped.”
A jumper by Larry Hughes made it 67-60 with 7:17 left in the third quarter, but the Cavaliers did not score again until he hit a 3-pointer with 9:23 left in the game. Meanwhile, the Bulls built an 84-67 lead and hung on for their third straight victory.
The Cavaliers were within 96-92 with 1:21 left after a corner 3-pointer by James, who scored 33. After a layup by Gordon, Hughes scored on a drive but missed the free throw, keeping it a two-possession game.
The Bulls’ Chris Duhon then hit one of two foul shots to increase the lead to five with 33 seconds left. James missed a runner and Drew Gooden missed the tip. Deng grabbed the rebound and the Bulls hung on for their 16th win in 19 games.
“We are feeling good,” Deng said. “We started slow, but we had a great month (14-3). We are proud of that.”
Deng, whose previous career high was 30 against Dallas in February 2005, is playing well despite spraining his right wrist on a flagrant foul by Miami’s James Posey on Wednesday. With his wrist bandaged again, Deng hit 15 of 19 shots after scoring 25 the previous night in a 107-97 win at Toronto.
The Bulls were without guard Kirk Hinrich, who sat out with a strained groin. Hinrich left late in the third quarter of Friday’s game after he aggravated a condition that had been bothering him for about a week when he tried to stop Toronto’s T.J. Ford from penetrating. He hopes to play Tuesday against Phoenix.
With Hinrich out, coach Scott Skiles chose to start rookie Thabo Sefolosha and keep Gordon in his sixth man role, where he has excelled. Gordon’s average has jumped from 12.8 as a starter the first six games to a team-high 20.2.
James, who turned 22 on Saturday, hit 15 of 26 field goals and grabbed nine rebounds. He scored 22 in the first half, but had just five in the final 20:49. And he twisted his right ankle when he stepped on a teammate’s foot midway through the third quarter.
“Defensively, they turned up the pressure,” James said. “The jump shots we were making in the first half wouldn’t go down the hole.”
A Bulls team that started 3-9 now leads the Eastern Conference with 19 wins — one more than Central division leader Detroit—but things were looking bleak in the third.
Cleveland started the quarter with a 12-2 run that began with Hughes’ jumper and ended on back-to-back 3-pointers by James. The Bulls managed to contain the NBA’s seventh-leading scorer after that, and the Cavaliers’ defense seemed overmatched.
“We did a poor job defensively,” Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. “They obviously had something to do with it. They drove the basketball extremely well. They got in the middle of our defense the entire night and collapsed our defense.”
The Bulls regained the lead when a falling Duhon converted a layup to put Chicago ahead 68-67 with 3:38 left in the third. Deng and Allen followed with back-to-back jumpers, and Deng added a tip-in and 22-footer that made it 76-67 with 36 seconds left. Gordon converted a layup in the closing seconds.
“Sometimes, when guys get hurt, they tend to play better because they have to rely on other things,” Gordon said. “(Deng’s) cutting to the basket. He’s playing a smarter game out there.”
Chicago’s Ben Wallace sprained his left ankle late in the first quarter but returned five minutes into the second period. … The Bulls were 0-for-2 from 3-point range, after hitting at least one from the outside in 315 consecutive regular-season and playoff games. They had not gone without a 3-pointer since Feb. 19, 2003, when they were 0-for-11 against Philadelphia. … James said the loss did not spoil his birthday: “At the end of the day, it’s just a basketball game.” … James, like most NBA players, will be happy to welcome back an old friend after New Year’s: the leather ball. The NBA switched to a microfiber composite before the season, and players made it clear they didn’t like the new one. “It’s good. I’m a very big supporter of the old basketball, which is going to be the new basketball,” James said. “I’m very excited about it.” … The Cavs had won five straight against the Bulls.