Orlando, Florida: At times last season the Chicago Bulls were guilty of leaning on MVP point guard Derrick Rose too much to help them pull out wins in close games.
If the way they closed out Friday night's 97-83 victory over Orlando is any indication, coach Tom Thibodeau's team is well on the way to fixing that problem.
Rose and Luol Deng each scored 21 points and Chicago held off a fourth-quarter surge by the Magic for its sixth straight victory.
Carlos Boozer added 20 points for Chicago, which led by as many as 17 before the lead was trimmed to three. The Bulls closed the game on a 17-6 run and hung on despite getting just four points from Rose in the final 12 minutes.
"Anything to win," Rose said. "That was the whole mindset. Just try to get out aggressive. Try to get guys going early. That was the whole game plan."
Thibodeau said he liked the way Rose adjusted when the Magic tried to clamp down on him in the second half.
"He's got a quick array of shots and he knows what he has to do," Thibodeau said. "When he needed to score, he scored. He did a really great job of playmaking."
Dwight Howard led the Magic with 28 points and 15 rebounds, and Jason Richardson broke out of scoring slump with 17. But Ryan Anderson, who coach Stan Van Gundy said "just didn't get in the battle" against the Bulls and had been leading the team in scoring, went cold, along with the Magic's reserves.
Van Gundy said the Magic, who were playing their first playoff opponent from last season since their season-opening loss at Oklahoma City, aren't ready to compete with that caliber of team right now.
"Quite simply we're not at that level. Not close," he said. "And that's OK; I'm not saying that crying or complaining. That's just the way it is. You've got to face reality. We've got to put in the work to reach that level, because right now we're not close to that level of play."
The Bulls (7-1) are off to their best start since winning 12 of 13 to open the 1996-97 season. The latest victory began a brutal stretch for Chicago that includes seven games in nine nights.
Orlando (5-3) lost at home for the first time this season.
Rose went through some scoring lulls but kept Chicago's offense on schedule, handing out 10 assists and coming within two rebounds of a triple-double.
The Bulls dominated inside and held a 46-37 rebounding edge. They also had 27 assists.
The Magic bench, which had been playing well this season, was 3 for 15 from the field.
The game featured several momentum shifts in the first three quarters.
The Bulls briefly opened a 17-point lead early in the third before three straight Magic 3-pointers pulled them within 62-54.
That came after Chicago built a 10-point lead at halftime.
The Bulls made their early run even though Rose was held scoreless in the second quarter. Kyle Korver picked up the slack with nine points and Boozer added eight, including a jumper at the halftime horn.
"They just play hard," Howard said of the Bulls. "Everybody did what they have to do. Guys came off the bench. They know what they had to do in the game. They didn't stay outside of their boundaries. ... We've got to be the same way."
Rose got off to a strong start with 12 first-quarter points.
The Magic jumped out to a 10-2 lead, prompting a quick Bulls timeout. But Chicago responded with a spurt of its own that included six straight points by Rose to tie it at 17.
Orlando regained its footing, outscoring the Bulls 10-9 the rest of the quarter thanks to six points by Howard, who was 6 for 8 in the period with 14 points and five rebounds.
"We have to understand what our roles are on this team. We have to understand what type of effort it's going to take every night for us to be a good team," Magic guard Chris Duhon said. "And right now we have to decide what type of team we want to be."
With such a tough schedule on tap, Thibodeau said the Bulls won't put too much stock in Friday's outcome or dwell on what's ahead.
"I think if you start looking at all the other stuff that's going on, you become distracted and it takes away from your preparation," he said. "You're seeing that there's a lot of great games out there. ... You just have to keep fighting and find a way to win. That's what it's coming down to."