CLEVELAND -- Tom Thibodeau and the Chicago Bulls kept hoping Marco Belinelli would have a night like he did on Wednesday. After struggling throughout the season to find a rhythm, the veteran shooter went off for 23 points and helped propel the Bulls to a much-needed 95-85 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"Marco played great tonight," said Bulls forward Luol Deng. "First quarter, came out and was aggressive, stayed aggressive and made some big plays. But we knew Marco could play; it's just he's been struggling a little bit finding his rhythm, and hopefully this will help him. It will help find his rhythm. When Rip [Hamilton] comes back and he comes off the bench [again], he'll be comfortable with what he's doing now that he's getting more minutes."
With Hamilton on the shelf for an indefinite amount of time because of a torn plantar fascia in his left foot, the Bulls needed someone to step up and produce offensively. Belinelli's performance livened up the locker room after the Bulls managed but 76 points during a Tuesday night loss to the Indiana Pacers. The players and coaches knew Belinelli had the talent to produce and were happy for him that he finally did.
"He's been playing well," said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. "Extended minutes, that's about the biggest difference. I thought he played hard, he scored different ways, he got to the free throw line, he posted up, catch-and-shoot, and I thought his teammates were searching him out, too, which is playing smart."
Thibodeau benched Belinelli for an entire game in Houston two weeks ago, but he always remained confident publicly that Belinelli would turn things around. That's why the coach was even happier Wednesday as Belinelli started knocking down shots early and played as aggressively as he had all season. There was a confidence in his game that he hadn't exhibited much this season.
"You have an idea because he's already proven that," Thibodeau said. "So you know that it's a matter of time. I think each day and each game he's gotten more comfortable. I thought he played very, very well."
Just how well did Belinelli play? Thibodeau decided to stick with him late in the first quarter, sending Jimmy Butler in to replace ironman Luol Deng.
"When I went and sat on the bench, I went and told the guys, 'So this is what ya'll do at this time," Deng said with a laugh. "But it was cool. I think coach realized that [we had] a tough game last night, played a lot of minutes and a quick turnaround, so he realized he gave me a quick rest early and actually it helped me a lot."
Belinelli said recently that he is as comfortable as he's been in a Bulls uniform. He is confident that this is the start of better things to come.
"It was good tonight," he said. "My teammates, they were ready to find me, so that was good. Just continuing this way, that's important for us to play together like tonight: run the fast break, try to score easy baskets and play good defense."
After watching him struggle for so long, it was tough to tell who was happier late Wednesday, Belinelli or his teammates. They knew he had put in the work and they knew all that extra work in practice had finally paid off.
"I think it was huge," Bulls center Joakim Noah said of Belinelli's performance. "Even in the beginning of the year, he's somebody who works really hard on his game and never got discouraged, just kept playing hard. And you see that as a player -- somebody who's passionate about the game -- and I'm happy that it's paying off for him."