The Bulls remained in fourth place in the Eastern Conference after Monday night’s 108-95 win over Orlando at the United Center, making it even more likely that they will take on fifth-place Brooklyn in the first round of the playoffs the upcoming weekend.
The East’s top two seeds were locked in Monday, as Miami rested All-Stars LeBron James and Chris Bosh, then fell to Washington, handing Indiana the conference’s top spot and settling for second place. Although Toronto still has to take care of business in its final game Wednesday against the Knicks to maintain the third seed, the Bulls are approaching their own regular-season finale in Charlotte the same way they’ve done things all season.
“We’re not changing,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We’re trying to win games. I think we won four in a row on the road prior to the New York game and I think we’re playing very good basketball right now, so we want to continue. We’re not changing our approach: every game, analyze what we’re doing well, what we’re doing not as well as we would like, make our corrections, move on to the next one, know the opponent well, keep moving forward. That’s all we can do. So this team has gotten through a lot of different situations throughout the course of the year. They’re a proud group. They put the work into it. Right now, we know that defensively, we’ve got to get better. But offensively, I love what we’re doing.”
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“To me, as you head down the stretch here, you have a lot of head-to-head games and whatever your circumstances are, you want to make the most of your circumstances. So some teams, they have the big cushion and they can make the decision: rest versus play. Are you nicked up? Are you injured? Oftentimes, teams will make that decision with about three weeks to go and then allow their guys to get some rhythm the last week. Other situations, you have to weigh having rhythm going in. Is that better? Sometimes you rest and you lose the rhythm that you had, so you have to weigh that into it, too. But I like where we are. I like how our team has responded. I think we’ve got a good rhythm with our starters and our bench guys, and then guys like Tony and Jimmer’s a late pickup, knowing that you’ve got guys you can go to if something happens,” he went on to explain. “I’m worried about tomorrow. But I’m not changing, so we’re going down there and we’re going to try to figure out how to win a game.”
Bulls’ sixth man Taj Gibson added: “You never know in this league, man. You never know if the Knicks are going to sit players, you never know who’s going to play for Toronto, if they’re going to keep their momentum going. Right now, we’re just focused on us, the same thing we’ve been doing all year, even after we lost all those games. We just focused on what we had to do. Just keep our momentum. We’re playing good basketball all year. We’ve just got to stay healthy and get more healthy, really.
“I think our defense is really tightening up at times. I think that we can pick it up another notch, but I just think that we didn’t pick it up a full notch because it’s 82 games. It kind of goes up and down. You can see it in our faces sometimes. But come playoff time and come Wednesday, I think it should sharpen up,” he continued. “You guys have been around for a minute now. You guys should know that guy in the other room over there, he’s not going to tell anybody to take any rest. He’s old school. He doesn’t believe in that. He just believes in pushing forward. Like he said, ‘The finish line is ahead. You’ve got to just run through it. You can’t slow up, you can’t try to trot through. You’ve got to run full speed ahead through it and whatever happens, happens.’ He told us, ‘We want to walk through the fire together as a team, as a unit. Nobody’s going to take that from you. You’ve just got to keep walking through it. Don’t stop for anything.’”
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When asked about potential second-round matchups, such as the Pacers, who finished the regular season in very uneven fashion, Gibson declined the opportunity to issue any potentially inflammatory statements.
“We really can’t look forward to the future. You’ve got to look at who’s in front of you because any kind of little thing teams can feed off of, they’ll use it against you. We don’t want to give anybody any kind of extra confidence, any kind of extra juice,” he said. “So we just kind of focus on ourselves, just being ready to play hard, tough-nosed, rugged basketball and we understand the stakes. We understand that’s what it’s about. We understand all the negativity that’s been said our way. We just focus on doing our job.”
Teammate Joakim Noah offered up similar sentiments, touting his team’s resiliency.
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“Expectations don’t win basketball games. We believe in ourselves, we believe in our abilities. We think that we’re going to be a tough out. We’re going to go out there and give them hell,” the Bulls’ All-Star center said. “Whoever we play, we’re going to be a tough out. We’re hungry, we want this, we believe in one another, we believe in our system and we’re just taking it day by day. It’s about taking it one game at a time. Tomorrow, it’s about getting ready for Charlotte and when the playoffs come, it’s one at a time. But it’s the best time of the year. It’s not cold outside anymore. The sun’s out…
Noah was then interrupted by a reporter, who informed him that it was snowing.
“You serious? Nah,” he said in disbelief. “It’s snowing for real?”
From across the locker room, Carlos Boozer shouted, “It’s snowing right now, my dude.”
The league’s Defensive Player of the Year award front-runner appeared crestfallen, but the confidence in his squad’s ability remains.