CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)—Raja Bell had trouble lifting his right arm, yet started. Gerald Wallace twice got hit near the rib he fractured earlier this season and stayed in the game. Raymond Felton and Emeka Okafor played despite tender ankles.
All four Bobcats reached double figures Tuesday night, and Charlotte proved too tough for the undermanned Chicago Bulls in a 96-80 victory they hope continues an improbable journey to the playoffs.
Bell scored all 18 of his points in the first half before turning into a decoy when his injured biceps proved too painful to shoot, while Felton had 18 points and nine assists in Charlotte’s season-high fourth straight win.
“We’ve got a lot of tough guys on this team. Raja, Gerald Wallace, that says a lot,” Felton said. “I commend those guys, but I’m the same way.”
After winning the final three games on their West Coast trip, the Bobcats returned home and moved within two games of eighth-place Milwaukee, which lost at home to New Jersey. They also secured the season tiebreaker over the Bulls, who are also in that logjam for the final postseason berth in the Eastern Conference.
“A big win for us,” said Bell, who decided about 40 minutes before tipoff that he could play. “Fourth in a row, first game back off a road trip. Sometimes young teams have a tendency to have a kind of a hangover when you get back. But we came out against a team we’re jockeying with position with right now and we desperately wanted that tiebreaker.”
While the Bobcats played through the pain, the Bulls were without forwards Luol Deng (leg) and Tim Thomas (knee). Chicago fell behind early and never recovered. Tyrus Thomas had 14 points and 12 rebounds for the disjointed Bulls, who shot 39 percent and committed 18 turnovers.
“I didn’t like our effort,” coach Vinny Del Negro said. “I didn’t like our turnovers. Just a very sloppy game for us.”
Del Negro said an hour before the game that Deng would play, but not start. But Deng, injured in Saturday’s win over Houston, ruled himself out about 45 minutes later.
“It didn’t feel right in warmups,” Deng said. “I couldn’t really push up. So it’s day by day.”
John Salmons replaced Deng at small forward two weeks after being acquired from Sacramento, but he shot 4-for-13 and the Bulls quickly fell behind while the ailing Bell lit them up from the outside.
Bell shot 7-for-9 from the field in the first half. Okafor, who finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds, dominated the inside and the Bobcats built a 16-point second-quarter lead.
After the Bulls got within 68-60 late in the third quarter, Felton hit a 3-pointer and fadeaway jumper and Boris Diaw had two buckets in an 11-2 run to put Charlotte ahead 79-62 entering the final quarter.
By then Bell was hurting.
“Once we sat at halftime and that adrenaline left it, it went back to being pretty sore and limiting,” Bell said. “I was able to do some other things and just take up space out there at times and help get guys rest.”
In the teams’ last meeting in December, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft shot 3-for-16 and was outplayed by fellow rookie D.J. Augustin in the Bobcats’ overtime win.
This time it was Felton that did most of the defensive work on Rose, who didn’t get his first field goal until early in the third quarter and finished with 13 points on 3-of-11 shooting.
So coach Larry Brown’s Bobcats, who started 7-18 before a series of trades, is suddenly in the thick of the playoff race.
“We had a lot of guys play well,” Brown said. “It was a lot of fun watching us.”
After Bulls GM John Paxson said in a radio interview he went to Del Negro about playing Rose at the end of games, Del Negro declined to discuss the conversation. “That’s between us,” he said. “I know my players better than anybody. Derrick’s going to be out there in the fourth quarter, and everybody’s going to be held accountable defensively.” … The Bulls began wearing a patch on their jerseys in honor of the late Johnny “Red” Kerr and Norm Van Lier. … Brown acknowledged they’ve discussed trying to sign G Luther Head, who was waived Saturday by Houston. … Texas Tech WR and top NFL draft prospect Michael Crabtree, in town to undergo foot surgery Wednesday, sat courtside. Crabtree declined to speak to a reporter.