The final day of the regular season has arrived, and what a year it was in Chicago.
The Bulls' 2012-13 regular season will be remembered more for the injuries than anything else, though a deep playoff run by Tom Thibodeau's crew could go a long way toward changing that.
Derrick Rose, who many expected could return after the All-Star break, missed all 82 games despite being medically cleared and practicing with the team for months. Joakim Noah dealt with an ugly bout of plantar fasciitis in his left foot. Kirk Hinrich, brought in to fill the void left by Rose's ACL injury, missed more than one-quarter (22 games) of the season with a host of injuries.
Rip Hamilton has returned for the stretch run but is dealing with nagging injuries that most 35-year-olds in the NBA suffer from. Taj Gibson sprained his knee earlier this month and is just now returning to form. Luol Deng and Marco Belinelli have also been bitten by the injury bug.
Every team deals with injuries over the span of 82 games and nearly six months, but the Bulls have been hit harder than most and perhaps the hardest in recent team history.
But in classic Tom Thibodeau fashion -- the man who is always quick to denounce injuries as excuses and remind everyone the Bulls have "more than enough" to get the job done -- 2012-13 also saw the emergence of key role players who will factor into the Bulls' playoff push.
Nate Robinson had his best season statistically in five years, jump-starting an offense off the bench that desperately needed it. Jimmy Butler showed signs of improvement early in the season and then exploded onto the scene when Belinelli missed time with an abdominal strain. In his last 13 games, all starts, Butler is averaging 14.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.9 steals in more than 42 minutes per game.
Both Butler and Robinson are the only two Bulls to have played in all 81 games for the Bulls, and they'll suit up one last time before the playoffs begin when Chicago hosts the Washington Wizards on Comcast SportsNet. Bulls Pregame Live begins at 6:30 p.m. and Postgame Live will follow.
There's still plenty on the line for the Bulls (44-37) in this one, too. Tied with the Atlanta Hawks heading into the final day of the regular season, the Bulls can wrap up the No. 5 seed with a win or a Hawks loss. If both teams win or lose, the Bulls' 2-1 head-to-head tiebreaker would win out, so the Bulls control their destiny.
It is, however, an interesting decision for both teams. The No. 5 seed in the East means a first-round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets (48-33; 25-15 at home), presumably an easier test than against the third-seeded Indiana Pacers (49-31; 30-10 at home).
But the No. 5 seed would face the Miami Heat in the second round -- unless the 37-44 Milwaukee Bucks go all 1980 U.S. Hockey -- while the sixth-seeded team would avoid the defending champs and prohibitive favorites.
Thibodeau would never admit to avoiding a certain team and he's always going to play to win -- plus, at some point the Bulls will most likely need to get past LeBron James and co. -- so look for a strong finish as the regular season comes to a close.
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