Bulls 112, New Jersey 96 (F)

CHICAGO, March 18 (AP) -- This time there was no fourth-quarter fade for the Chicago Bulls.

Their 24-point cushion sliced to nine by the New Jersey Nets early in the final period Tuesday night, the Bulls responded, even if they were a little worried it was about to happen again.

"Somewhat,'' Chicago guard Larry Hughes said after a 112-96 victory.

"But instead of letting that stretch go on for three or four minutes, we cut it down. Instead of letting it go on like in previous games, we were able to refocus and get things going back in the right direction.''

In their two previous losses, the Bulls blew an 18-point fourth-quarter lead against the 76ers and then let a nine-point lead get away in the final period Monday night in New Orleans.

With the lead slipping this time, Ben Gordon hit a jumper and Kirk Hinrich sank a 3-pointer from the corner to start an 15-2 run that gave Chicago a 94-72 lead.

Gordon scored 10 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter and Hughes added 16 in Chicago's balanced attack. Luol Deng scored 20 points, and Drew Gooden had 19 points and 11 rebounds for Chicago.

"We didn't want that to become a habit,'' Deng said of losing late leads. "We were talking to each other that we got to put a stop to it and we can't become known for that.''

New Jersey played the second half without starting point guard Devin Harris, who sprained his right ankle and limped off the court with 1:56 to go in the second quarter.

Harris' ankle was swollen after the game, but X-rays were negative and he will be evaluated daily.

Vince Carter led the Nets with 22 points and Richard Jefferson finished with 21.

Both teams have losing records but are vying for the playoffs. The Nets were ninth and the Bulls 10th in the Eastern Conference.

"Very disappointing, our effort,'' Carter said. "We made a valiant effort in the third quarter, but we just let it slip away and put us back where we started.

"We're playing for more than just to end the season this year - we're playing to continue our season. We can't have these type of showings if you want to make the playoffs.''

Chicago closed the first half with a 16-0 run to lead 58-34.

Thabo Sefolosha hit a pair of 3-pointers and Deng had a spectacular dunk on a pass from Hinrich to spur the 16-0 run by the Bulls that opened up the big halftime lead.

Chicago outscored the Nets 29-8 in the second quarter - New Jersey's lowest-scoring quarter of the season, thanks to 3-for-19 shooting in the period.

"That second quarter was a combination of poor shots, turnovers, poor possessions. Then their transition attack wiped us out,'' Nets coach Lawrence Frank said.

"We put ourselves in such a huge hole. ... 29-8 second quarter and just the way it was happening, that was disappointing.''

But Carter and Jefferson got the Nets back in the game, scoring 14 and 13 points, respectively, in the third quarter, as New Jersey cut the margin to 11.

Then the Bulls regrouped after it got down to nine.

"We got stops,'' Hughes said. "We rebounded the ball. When you have a big lead you have to get stops and that's what we did. ... We won't want to feel like we play well for three quarters and anything can happen in the fourth. ... We have to learn how to win.''

Hinrich hit a jumper at the first-quarter buzzer and then added a 3-pointer and another basket to start the second quarter, sparking an earlier 12-0 Chicago run for a 34-26 lead.

Notes: The Nets' Nenad Krstic missed his second straight game with an upper respiratory infection. ... The Bulls are now 18-23 since Jim Boylan replaced Scott Skiles in late December. .. Chicago is 6-8 since the 11-player, three-team trade with Cleveland and Seattle on Feb. 21.

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