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Hornets-Bulls Preview

AP - Sports

With the reigning league MVP claiming to be pain-free, the Chicago Bulls are focused on building toward a championship over the season's second half.

Despite playing their best right before the All-Star break, the New Orleans Hornets don't have quite the same expectations.

Derrick Rose and the Central Division-leading Bulls look to beat the Hornets for an eighth straight time Tuesday night at the United Center.

Chicago (27-8) comes out of the break a half-game back of Eastern Conference-leading Miami despite missing Rose (toe, back) for 10 games and fellow All-Star Luol Deng for seven (left wrist).

Richard Hamilton has also only appeared in 11 games because of groin and thigh problems.

"We find ways to win,'' Rose said of the Bulls, who were 23-12 through 35 games last season. "Last year, it was new to everyone. This year, I think we're more comfortable with how (coach Tom Thibodeau) wants to play, knowing that he just wants us to go out there and play hard and play together all the time.''

The play of both Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah has helped the Bulls open a five-game division lead over Indiana despite the injuries to Rose and Deng.

Boozer has averaged 19.0 points in his last nine games, and Chicago is 19-2 when he scores at least 16. Noah is averaging 12.6 points and 11.9 rebounds in his last eight, a stretch he capped with 13 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists - his first career triple-double - in Wednesday's 110-91 win over Milwaukee.

"All I know is, with what we have this year, I don't feel like we've peaked yet,'' Noah said. "We have to take it up another notch to win a championship.''

Rose had 23 points in his return to the Bulls' lineup Feb. 20, then pronounced himself pain-free before scoring 16 against Milwaukee.

He had 14 points and three assists in 18 minutes in the All-Star game, while Deng played a scoreless six minutes. Thibodeau didn't use either in the fourth quarter.

Both also got plenty of rest in Chicago's last game against the Hornets, a 90-67 victory Feb. 8. Rose, who would miss the next five games with a sore back, had six points, six assists and five rebounds in 22 minutes while Deng scored nine and sat out the final eight minutes of the Bulls' seventh straight victory in the series.

That was the lowest point total of the season for New Orleans (8-25), which is 29th in scoring at 88.2 points per game. Chicago is second in the league in scoring defense at 87.9.

The Hornets hope to get a boost Tuesday with the possible returns of big men Emeka Okafor (left knee) and Jason Smith (concussion). Okafor averages 9.9 points and Smith 8.2.

Even with Okafor, Smith, Eric Gordon (right knee) and Carl Landry (left knee) sidelined, New Orleans is showing improvement. The team is 4-2 since March 13 after opening the season 4-23.

"We've got a little bit of momentum going now,'' coach Monty Williams said after Wednesday's 89-84 victory at Cleveland. "As a coach, you almost want to keep playing because the last 2 1/2 weeks have been eye-opening for our guys.''

A big reason for the turnaround has been the play of Chris Kaman, who is averaging 17.8 points and 9.0 rebounds in starting the last six games for Okafor.

The center, who averaged 9.6 points and 7.1 rebounds in his first 19 games, came off the bench against the Bulls three weeks ago and had a team-high 17 points and nine boards.

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