Bulls' 'magic number' down to one after beating Pacers

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Bulls' 'magic number' down to one after beating Pacers

INDIANAPOLISBulls head coach Tom Thibodeau has talked incessantly about his team not skipping stepssince his tenure in Chicago began, but most recently, as a cautionary tale before the playoffsand not getting caught up in the race for home-court advantage throughout the postseason.

Well, it appeared the Bulls (49-16) heeded his warning, as they held off Central Division rival Indiana, 92--85 Wednesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, reducing their magic number to clinch the leagues top overall seed to just one game.

A steady dose of the inside tandem of Carlos Boozer (16 points and seven rebounds) and Joakim Noah (14 points and 14 rebounds) set the tone at the outset, as Boozer displayed his feathery touch and the energetic Noah was active and used his agility and high activity level to frustrate Pacers All-Star center Roy Hibbert.

For Indiana (42-24), veteran power forward David West (13 points and five rebounds) got off to a solid start, but that wasnt enough to prevent the visitors from creating some early separation.

All-Star point guard Derrick Rose (10 points and seven assists) didnt have a major impact, but in an abbreviated stint, the reigning league MVP showed some explosiveness on one move in particular, an acrobatic driving left-handed finish.

Despite reserve Darren Collison (six points and four assists), formerly the Pacers starting point guard, sparking the hosts toward the end of the period, the Bulls led, 32-24, after the opening quarter, as All-Star Luol Deng (nine points and eight rebounds) contributed with a strong all-around performance.

Lockdown defense by the Bench Mob, as well as Kyle Korvers (20 points) outside marksmanship and the blend of scoring and playmaking of C.J. Watson (five points and three assists), allowed the Bulls to further extend their edge.

Indiana didnt let things get completely out of hand, as they mustered enough of an effort , led by second-year guard Lance Stephenson (22 points)in his first NBA start, as leading scorer Danny Granger was sidelined due to a sore kneeto make sure the visitors didnt run away with the game in the first half.

The Bulls starters returned at approximately the periods midway point and were able to maintain both the double-digit spread and determined defensive effort. At the intermission, the Bulls held a 49-36 advantage, after Dengs attempted buzzer-beating three-pointer at the halftime whistle was ruled no good by the officials.

Chicago came out hot after the break, as Boozer and Noah resumed their early dominance, but behind West, the Pacers responded and cut the deficit to single digits.

Suddenly, with Indiana within striking distance, the contest began to resemble the defensive-minded dogfights in the first-round playoff series from a year ago, as the home crowdno longer as supportive of the guestsgot behind their team.

The Bulls defense prevented the Pacers from further closing the gap, as Indiana, with the exception of the fearless Stephenson, struggled to score near the end of the third quarter. While the Bulls also experienced one of their periodic offensive droughts, they still entered the final stanza with a 67-59 lead.

Chicagos Bench Mob, sparked by the high-energy play of Taj Gibson (10 points and three rebounds) and swingman Ronnie Brewer (four points and four assists), pushed the pace and got out to a quick start in the fourth quarter.

However, they were countered by a Pacers squad that lacked any fear of their opponent, stemming from the aforementioned playoff battle last season, and the young Stephenson continued to carry the offensive load.

Although the Bulls were plagued by ball-security issues, leading to transition baskets for Indiana. After Thibodeau sent back in a mix of his regularsRose got the opportunity for some extra work and hit a key floater before being replaced by Watson latebut it was Korvers shooting that ensured the visitors wouldnt falter down the stretch.

Solid execution and defense were able to hold off the Pacers, who went to an all-reserve lineup in the games waning moments, despite Stephenson continuing to pour in points on a career night.

Nikola Mirotic, Bulls show some moxie in road win over Bucks

Nikola Mirotic, Bulls show some moxie in road win over Bucks

Whacked on his ailing left hand by Khris Middleton, Jimmy Butler shook off the pain to hit a rare triple in transition while Middleton was complaining for a foul a couple possessions later.

Butler then darted into the passing lane for a pass intended for Jason Terry like a linebacker jumping into the flat for an interception, then trotted down for an uncontested dunk to give the Bulls an unlikely 17-point lead.

For the man who claims he’s the best football player in the NBA, playing through the pain and doing so with his team’s playoff hopes dwindling, Butler may finally have some believers to his boasts.

Not only did the Bulls avoid a season sweep to the Milwaukee Bucks with a resounding 109-94 win at the BMO Bradley Center Sunday afternoon, they restored a slight sense of pride after looking like they had none of it Friday night in their loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

Butler scored 20 with a career-high 13 assists in a grinding 39 minutes, but he could play the role of a semi-closer, making those big plays in the fourth when the Bulls pulled away.

Instead, it was March Madness as Nikola Mirotic played up to his career numbers in his favorite month on the calendar, drilling five triples on his way to 28 points and eight rebounds in 35 minutes.

Mirotic and Rajon Rondo helped the Bulls to a decisive double-digit lead in the third quarter with Rondo scoring 14 of his 18 points in the period, hitting a triple, getting into the lane for layups and dishing out a few of his eight assists.

It was an offensive masterpiece for the Bulls, a prospect that seemed highly unlikely given the opponent and the way they played coming into Sunday’s contest. And with the Bucks getting Giannis Antetokounmpo going early along with Middleton, it looked like a nightmare of a different kind was in store for the Bulls.

But Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg wasn’t about to let an instant replay occur, having seen his own version of a “Nightmare on Madison Street” Friday night against the woeful 76ers when his backups let time stand still for minutes at a time, squandering a double-digit lead.

Hoiberg decided not to mess around with the second unit as the Bucks began pulling away in the same manner the 76ers did Friday night. He brought the starters right back in when the lead ballooned to 45-33 at the 8:29 mark.

Then the Bulls went to work to finish the half, with a 23-10 run, along with starting off the third as efficient as they had been in awhile against a worthwhile opponent, shooting 14 of 21 in the period to take a 91-79 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Mirotic was seven of eight from the field before halftime and his first miss of the third—a 30-foot triple that went wide right, wound up in a 3-point opportunity for Rondo, who scooped the ball and scored on a layup while being fouled.

It was that kind of afternoon for the Bulls, a team that can’t seem to decide who they want to be on a nightly basis—making it that much harder for an opponent to predict, that much more difficult to eliminate from the playoff conversation.

Five Things to Watch: Bulls visit Bucks in final regular season meeting on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Bulls visit Bucks in final regular season meeting on CSN

Watch as the Bulls take on the Milwaukee Bucks today on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 2 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Bulls Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Bulls.

Five Things to Watch:

1. Can the Bulls get one on the Bucks? The Bulls are 0-3 against the Bucks so far this season and it hasn't been pretty. The Bucks have won the previous three meetings all by double digits and by an average of 19 points. The youth and athleticism of the Bucks has been a tough matchup for the Bulls so far.

2. Containing Giannis. There may be no stopping Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the Bulls can at least try to contain him. Antetokounmpo is averaging 23 points and nearly nine rebounds per game. In three games against the Bulls this year he has averaged 29 points, 10 rebounds and 7.3 assists per contest. If the Bulls are to stay in the game, they will need to keep him to numbers lower than that.

3. Playoff implications. The Bulls playoff hopes are still alive with nine games remaining, but things are looking a bit bleak. The Bulls are a game and a half out of the eighth playoff spot, but only 3.5 games behind two teams tied for the No. 5 seed, the Bucks and the Atlanta Hawks. The Bucks have won three in a row to improve their position.

4. Mirotic on a roll. Streaky play is nothing new to Nikola Mirotic, but he's on a good run currently. After scoring a season-high 28 points on Wednesday against the Pistons, Mirotic followed that up with 15 points against the 76ers. Since missing three straight games earlier this month, Mirotic has scored in double figures in five of the last seven games and is averaging 15.6 points during that stretch.

5. Beginning of a tough stretch. The Bulls' playoff hopes could be made or broken in the next three games. After taking on the Bucks, which occupy a playoff spot, the Bulls host two more Eastern Conference playoff teams in Cleveland and Atlanta. The Bulls need to string some wins together and this is not an easy stretch to do so against.

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