The matchup Sunday between the Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic had the potential to be a preview of a possible second-round playoff pairing between two of the Eastern Conference's top four teams.
Instead, with the Magic missing several pieces, it wound up providing the latest reason why Chicago's Derrick Rose could be inching closer to his first MVP award.
Rose had 39 points and five assists, and Luol Deng added 15 points to help the Bulls hold off the Magic 102-99. Rose also was 10 for 10 at the foul line, which proved to be vital in staving off a late Magic charge.
Orlando's Jameer Nelson appeared to tie it with a 3-pointer at the buzzer, but an official review upheld an initial call of no basket. Ryan Anderson led the Magic with a career-high 28 points, Jason Richardson added 24 and Nelson had 17.
"We had them," Rose said. "We should have easily put them away. But we continue to let teams come back. It's going to hurt us if we continue to do this. But we're definitely happy with this win. We've got to learn how to put teams away."
Chicago won its seventh in a row and for the 19th time in 21 games. The Bulls also kept alive their chances of finishing with the NBA's best record, which would give them home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
"They played extremely well. It wasn't a good game for us," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Our defense wasn't very good, our rebounding was below average and we didn't take care of the ball. We were fortunate (to) win."
The Magic dropped to 1-3 without center Dwight Howard. He sat out Sunday, serving his second suspension of the season after picking up his 18th technical foul.
The possible playoff preview was spoiled not only by Howard's absence, but also that of Magic sixth man J.J. Redick and reserve Quentin Richardson. Redick missed his 15th straight game with a lower abdominal strain. Richardson served the first of a two-game suspension for shoving Charlotte's Gerald Henderson in the face in last week's win over the Bobcats.
But thanks to hot outside shooting, the Magic didn't seem to miss a beat without them.
Chicago led just 80-77 entering the fourth quarter, after fighting off several runs by Orlando in the third.
The Magic forced six ties over the first eight minutes of the final period before Brandon Bass' free throw and Jason Richardson's layup gave the Magic a 94-91 lead with 2:46 to play.
A pair of free throws by Rose trimmed the lead to 94-93, and his dunk off a Magic turnover gave Chicago the lead back again, 95-94, with 2 minutes left.
Chicago led 97-96 when Rose lost the ball out of bounds, turning it over to Orlando with 49 seconds remaining. The Magic turned it back over to the Bulls during a loose-ball scramble following a missed shot, and Taj Gibson was fouled with 14.2 seconds left. He hit 1 of 2 at the line, but Chicago was able to chase down the rebound.
The ball found its way into Rose's hands, and he hit both free-throw attempts to make it 100-96. Richardson finally got a 3 to go in with 2.7 seconds left, but Carlos Boozer hit two more free throws to push the lead back to 102-99 with 2 seconds to go and set up Nelson's final attempt.
The Magic hit 12 3-pointers to keep them in the game, but shot just 43 percent overall and gave up 40 points in the paint. The 60 percent that Chicago shot for the game tied a season high for a Magic opponent.
But the Bulls also had an uncharacteristic 21 turnovers — including five by Rose — which tied a previous season high set in January against Boston.
"It is hard to believe you're even in the game," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "Their 21 turnovers were they only thing that kept us in the game. ... We didn't defend them well enough to win. They were breaking us down every time."
Shortcomings aside, with two games to play, Anderson said Sunday's effort did give them confidence about what they can do when they are moving the ball well and playing together.
"I think we just know how good a team we are," Anderson said. "I think when we come out and play the entire game like we did tonight, I think we can play against anybody...It gives us confidence because we played great. This is kind of the effort that we've been looking for."
Boozer said their goals of their final two games is clear.
"Winning, getting our tools sharp," Boozer said. "Heading into the playoffs, playing our best basketball."