Hawks embark on tough five-game stretch

At least the Clippers, who visit Philips Arena on Wednesday, are holding form. Before playing at Minnesota on Friday, they had lost seven of eight road games, including an embarrassing 103-87 defeat at lowly New Jersey on Wednesday.

The Bulls, who come to town Friday, are another story. In fact, they might yet rewrite the narrative that everyone once assumed would end with the firing of coach Vinny Del Negro.

The seven-game Western Conference swing that was supposed to grind up the Bulls instead has rejuvenated them. They started the trip with losses at Golden State and the Clippers but then won four consecutive against a formidable lineup of Phoenix, Houston, San Antonio and Oklahoma City.

That streak allowed the Bulls to get back to.500 (22-22) for the first time since Nov. 22, when they were 6-6. The Bulls wrapped up the trip Friday at New Orleans looking for a season-high fifth consecutive win.

“When you go on the road, it builds character and confidence,” Bulls center Joakim Noah said. “I’m happy with the way things are going right now. Things are definitely looking up. Last month, it was almost like a disaster.”

After losing at New York on Dec. 22, the Bulls were 10-17. They were 12-5 since then before Friday’s game.

Chicago has figured out its early-season inability to make plays late to win tight games. A big part of that has been the emergence of point guard Derrick Rose as a dependable clutch performer.

Rose, who last week was named an All-Star for the first time, was averaging 26.3 points during the four-game winning streak and had raised his season average to 19.8.

“He’s playing at a really high level, hitting some unbelievable shots, and it’s making the game a lot easier for me and lot of other guys,” Noah said.

Rose finally is healthy after being slowed for the first six weeks of the season with a slow-healing ankle injury. He’s also gaining confidence in his jumper, which was considered his weakness when the Bulls selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft.

“Derrick’s jump shot, we just keep working on that,” Del Negro said. “[Assistants] Dave Severns and Randy Brown are doing a fantastic job with Derrick on that jump shot.”

Close counts

After winning 94-91 at the Hawks on Jan. 18, Oklahoma City lost four consecutive games by a combined five points. The Pacers, in 1999, were the last team to have three one-point losses and another by two points. This was the first time it has happened in the 42-year history of the Sonics/Thunder.

“We won’t win all the close games, but when we put ourselves in that position we gain valuable experience,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “One day we’ll be solid with every possession at the end like the elite teams. What I like is we compete every game. I can’t remember the last time we weren’t in a game.”

Maybe Brooks jinxed the Thunder. The Bulls beat Oklahoma City 96-86, the Thunder’s first double-digit loss since a 100-86 defeat vs. Dallas on Dec. 16.

Quick quote

“I always joke with my son, Shareeff. He’s 10 now. He’s always saying, ‘Hey, LeBron [James] is the man.’ I tell him, ‘Son, I’ve been the man for four different presidents.’ “

Cavaliers center Shaquille O’Neal, whose 18 seasons span U.S. presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Information gathered by NBA beat writers was used in this report.

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