MIAMI — With two regular-season games remaining, there is still plenty at stake for the Bulls.
The eight Eastern Conference playoff teams are set, but the Bulls are still engaged in a battle with Atlanta for the fifth seed, an outcome that won’t be determined until Wednesday’s finale.
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Currently a half-game behind the Hawks, who play Toronto at home Tuesday and before a Wednesday matchup at New York, the Bulls, who own a tiebreaker over Atlanta by virtue of winning the season series 2-1, are looking at either facing Indiana, the East’s third seed, or Brooklyn in the first round.
“No preference,” said Kirk Hinrich, when asked after Sunday’s game if the Bulls cared who they played in the opening round. “The preference is just to play well these last two games, win the games, and grab whatever little momentum there is and take it into the playoffs, and get as healthy as we can be.
“Just come out with two solid efforts on both sides of the floor. We’ve kind of been inconsistent in both areas here as of late, and we just have to gear up,” he continued. “Once the season ends, the playoffs are here. It’s not like we get another training camp. We just need to play two solid-effort games on both sides of the floor, unselfish on offense, moving the ball, just being very sharp.”
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau echoed his floor general’s sentiment, showing more concern about Monday’s game at Orlando than what will transpire next weekend.
“I don’t want us thinking about the playoffs. I want us thinking about playing well tomorrow. The next day we’ll worry about whatever is next. Orlando can score the ball. [Forward Tobias] Harris is playing well. [Center Nikola] Vucevic is playing extremely well. They have some very good young players who keep pressure on you. We have to be right and ready when we go in there,” he said.
“I think you can only deal with the things you have control over, so I think whatever your circumstances are, you have to make the best of those circumstances. With the injuries, it’s given the other guys the opportunity to grow, so that’s the way we’re looking at it and we want to be as healthy as possible going into the playoffs.”
Thibodeau is hopeful that the Bulls will have one or both of the Bulls’ injured big men, All-Star center Joakim Noah and top reserve Taj Gibson, back for the Magic game or at the least, Wednesday’s home showdown with Washington.
Against the Heat, the Bulls’ advantage on the interior wasn’t as pronounced as usual, since they were often forced to go small for matchup purposes.
“We’re small. When you take 26 threes, those were probably the right shots. We have four perimeter players out there with Carlos,” Thibodeau explained. “Those are shots that present themselves. What happens when you do that is your offense picks up but your defense suffers. The value of both Taj and Joakim is you can stay big when teams go small because of their feet. We have other guys who can get it done. We just didn’t.”
Gibson, who said before Sunday’s game that he could play Monday -- albeit with a heavy knee brace -- explained that with his left-knee sprain, getting into adequate shape before the postseason was a priority.
“Just conditioning. I play at a high pace, high energy, so as long as I have that, I’ll be fine,” he said. “My teammates always look for me and give me great shots, so I just have to have the right kind of stamina and everything to guard somebody.”
Thibodeau downplayed any concern about reintegrating Gibson and Noah, who is dealing with an ongoing bout of plantar fasciitis in his right foot, back into the lineup.
“We’ll deal with it. We’ll figure out a way to get it done,” he said. “Right now, the big part is them putting the work into their rehab and to be mentally sharp, to stay locked in to what the team is doing when they’re out and then when they’re back in the mix, they don’t skip a beat, just be ready to get in there and get the job done, so that’s the challenge.”
It should be noted that aside from simply avenging the Bulls’ win in their last meeting, which snapped Miami’s 27-game winning streak, the Heat’s win Sunday also benefits them in the future.
If the Bulls are the East’s sixth seed, even if they advance past Central Division rival Indiana, Miami would avoid the Bulls -- not that the Heat are ducking anybody, but the Bulls are obviously a team that has no fear factor, unlike perhaps other potential foes -- in the second round.
“I don’t know about sending messages and all that nonsense,” Thibodeau scoffed beforehand. “I think you get ready to play, decide the game on the floor. They’re the defending champion, everyone’s chasing them.”
Due to Rip Hamilton serving a one-game suspension because of throwing an elbow at Raptors swingman DeMar DeRozan in Friday’s loss at Toronto, it wasn’t much of an issue Sunday, but Thibodeau now has to manage a much deeper rotation at shooting guard, with Marco Belinelli and Hamilton returning to health, combined with Jimmy Butler’s recent emergence and apparent seizing of the starting job on a permanent basis in their absence.
“We’ll see how it unfolds. We want to get a look at the guys coming back, then we’re going to have to make decisions on rotations,” the coach said. “You get to the playoffs, your rotations a little shorter, so we’ll see.”
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Butler’s defensive ability and burgeoning confidence on the offensive end warrants him continuing to receive major minutes.
“He’s an excellent offensive player because the way he scores. He runs the floor, he moves without the ball, he’s quick to the offensive board, he’s worked extremely hard on his three-point shot -- he’s a very good corner three-point shooter right now -- and we felt good about that from the start,” Thibodeau said of the blossoming Butler.
“He’s always been an excellent three-point shooter, so we thought that showed us he had the capability to improve his shooting and he’s done that, and he can play off of people, he’s great feeding the post. He does a lot of things to help your team.
“He’s a team-first guy and he’s made a great commitment to our team. He has steadily improved since he was drafted. Unfortunately for him, his first year was the lockout season, so he missed the summer and the fall. So he was learning on the fly most of last year, but I thought last summer he showed us how serious he was by being in the gym all summer long,” Thibodeau continued.
“Didn’t take a day off, just kept working and working and working, and so, it wasn’t anything that he said; it was what he was doing and when you get that type of commitment, you’re going to see improvement and he’s got a great demeanor, great work ethic and those types of guys continue to improve, and that’s what he’s done.”
Meanwhile Belinelli’s shooting on a team that struggles with outside marksmanship, as well as his pick-and-roll ballhandling, makes him at least a situational player, but don’t discount Hamilton’s veteran savvy, ability to score, underrated playmaking skills and postseason experience, attributes that surfaced in last year’s first-round playoff series with Philadelphia.
“The thing about Rip is the durability thing and that’s what we’re concerned with. I thought he played great [in Thursday’s overtime win over New York]. We’re always concerned with the next day, how he feels. We don’t want any setbacks. I spoke with him today and he’s feeling great, so we’re hopeful that will continue. He’s put a lot into his rehab. He brings a lot to our team,” Thibodeau explained.
“He’s got a great mind for the game, so he’s experienced. How he sees the game, I think that that’s a huge asset for us and unfortunately, he’s taken on a lot of injury, but when he’s out on the floor, the way he passes the ball tells you a lot about how he sees the game and that ability to make other people better is huge for us.”
Regardless of the available personnel -- let’s not forget that Derrick Rose refused to rule out returning in the playoffs -- the Bulls will be prepared for whoever they face, whenever they play them.
“Well, I don’t think you can ever underestimate how important that is because I think that’s where your intensity comes from. Knowing your opponent well, concentrating, giving maximum effort,” Thibodeau said. “The thing that makes the playoffs for everybody so exciting is the fact that you’re playing the same team over and over again. That makes it even, I think, more competitive, and that’s what makes the playoffs so great for the NBA.
“Whatever it is, we’ve got to be ready and that’s the challenge of the NBA. Sometimes the schedule’s in your favor, sometimes it’s not. You can’t sidetracked. When they tell you that’s when you’re going, you’ve got to be ready at that time and hopefully, during the course of the season, you’re preparing yourself for that.”
Indeed, if the NBA schedules the Bulls’ postseason opener for next Saturday, at midnight, on the roof of their opponents’ arena, Thibodeau will be instructing his players to get the ladders.