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Bulls surprise defending champs

CHICAGO – In a playoff-type at-mosphere, the Bulls looked right at home.

They certainly looked worthy of at least qualifying for the postseason, matching and ultimately surpassing the defending NBA champions Tuesday night at the United Center.

The 127-121 victory against the Boston Celtics featured a starring performance from forward John Salmons.

A trade-deadline acquisition,and one of the NBA’s most improved players this season, Salmons was every bit the equal of Celtics forward Paul Pierce. Salmons scored 38 points, tying a career-high, to Pierce’s 37.

“That’s what you sometimes see in the playoffs, two guys going toe to toe and neither one backing down,” Bulls center Brad Miller said. “Everyone knows Paul Pierce is a great player, and John was right there with him tonight.”

The game certainly did not feature playoff-caliber defense, which might have been expected with Celtics forward Kevin Garnett missing his 12th consecutive game. Garnett (knee) is among the league’s best defenders.

But it featured plenty of intensity, with the Bulls rallying from a 13-point deficit in the third quarter and setting the stage for a back-and-forth final period.

In the end, the Bulls (31-37) won at home for the seventh consecutive game and moved a half-game ahead of Milwaukee for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot.

“To have a chance to experience this kind of game and see what we can do to be able to win it, that’s a great thing for my guys to go through,” Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said.

Like Boston (50-17), which is 6-6 without Garnett, the Bulls were not at full strength. Luol Deng remained out because of a possible stress fracture in his right leg.

While it is hard for Celtics reserves such as Mikki Moore to duplicate what Garnett brings, Salmons was a fine replacement for Deng.

Salmons was a portrait of efficiency, hitting 14 of 20 shots.

“We’re in a really good rhythm as far as our offense, moving the ball and finding the open man,” Salmons said. “I was the open man a lot tonight because their defense was focused on Derrick [Rose] and Ben [Gordon].”

Salmons’ fellow trade-deadline acquisition, Miller, came off the bench to score 21 points and grab 14 rebounds.

Rose, the Bulls’ rookie point guard, ran the offense well, dishing out eight assists. In the final two minutes, he found Miller for a layup and Salmons for a driving three-point play that proved decisive.

“I had a lot of fun just playing in a game like this and then to be able to make a few plays at the end to help us win [is] great,” Rose said.

Salmons keyed the third-quarter comeback, making a long three-pointer to reduce the deficit to 76-67. Gordon made a three, and Salmons’ three-point play cut the deficit to 78-73.

Pierce was on top of his game, making 13 of 24 shots, but Salmons, a seventh-year pro, was at least as good.

“He has taken his game to another level this year,” Pierce said.

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