Tom Thibodeau never gives his Chicago Bulls permission to look ahead at any point in the season, especially this lockout-shortened one. The veteran coach wants his players to take a day-to-day approach and solely worry about the team’s next opponent, rather than “skipping steps,” as he has phrased it over the course of the year.
However, it was hard for the Bulls not to ponder – or even see – the light at the end of the tunnel following a 93-83 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday night that all but assured them of the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. In the process, the victory all but shattered the Miami Heat’s hopes of supplanting the Bulls, as they were essentially without each member of the big three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in a loss to the lowly Washington Wizards on Saturday.
After Saturday’s action, the Bulls moved to 48-16 while the Heat dropped to 45-17. With the postseason right around the corner, next weekend, to be exact, Chicago needs to win just one of its two remaining games this season – on the road against the Indiana Pacers Wednesday and at home versus the Cleveland Cavaliers Thursday. In order for the Heat to surpass the Bulls atop the East standings, Miami would need to win out against the Houston Rockets Sunday, Boston Celtics Tuesday and Wizards Thursday and have the Bulls lose at least one contest.
As for tiebreakers, if both the Bulls and Heat end up with identical records, whichever team owns the best conference mark will achieve the top spot. Obviously, the Bulls are in good position to secure the No. 1 seed and the home-court advantage that comes with it, as they will be favorites heading into their final two matchups, especially the season finale against the Cavs.
But, as usual, don’t tell that to Bulls players. They have been brainwashed by Thibodeau, who has a never-satisfied policy that the locker room has accepted for the past two years.
Derrick Rose, who had 11 points and eight assists Saturday in his return from a three-game absence with a right foot injury, acknowledged he and his teammates want to be able to lock up home-court advantage throughout the playoffs – in the Western Conference, the San Antonio Spurs (46-16) are tied with the Bulls in the loss column – and not at the expense of letting up on the gas pedal.
“We want it, but if we don’t get it, it’s no excuses,” Rose told reporters after the game. “We just can’t stop playing if we don’t get the number one seed. Our biggest concern is trying to win out, taking it game by game. We’re not trying to overlook no other team.”
The Bulls earned home-court advantage last season, as well, but they were not able to capitalize when it mattered most as they suffered a five-game defeat to the Heat in the East finals. The top seed doesn’t guarantee anything, but it’s a valued commodity that the Bulls – and their fans who pack the United Center night in and night out – would take great pride in accomplishing for the second straight campaign.
“We still have to win out,” Rose said. “The next team on our [schedule] is Indiana. We’re taking it one game at a time. We’re not worried about no other team, just with what we’re trying to do here, and we’re just trying to win every game.”
When Chicago was pushed around in an 83-72 defeat to the Heat on Thursday, the Bulls looked like the team on the verge of giving up the top spot they have held for most of the season. It would have been a psychological hit, a bad omen entering the playoffs having given up the No. 1 seed to the arch rival Heat.
Now, the Bulls are the squad that has a roster that’s fully able to play, while the Heat are the ones who rested two members of their big three, James and Bosh, on Saturday, while Wade exited the tilt in the opening minutes due to a finger injury.
Still, there are plenty of issues the Bulls know they must iron out in the coming days. They went through lulls on both ends of the court at several points and allowed the Mavs to stage a furious rally after scoring a season-low eight first-quarter points on 4-of-19 shooting. In the end, that first quarter – in which Rip Hamiton and Carlos Boozer scored 18 of the team’s 21 points – was the difference for the Bulls, who also got a high-energy effort from Joakim Noah (eight points, 14 rebounds, eight assists) and critical late-game shooting out of Kyle Korver (11 points).
“We had a great first quarter,” Thibodeau told the assembled media. “[In] the second quarter … we just didn’t play well. It’s a little choppy right now, and we’ve got to try and get some rhythm. We’ll figure that out as we go.”
Indeed, Thibodeau himself was tinkering around with the Bulls’ lineup. He implemented Luol Deng at power forward at one point and went with Korver down the stretch instead of Hamilton, who finished with 19 points and was the best offensive player on the floor through three quarters.
Deng, of course, spent some time at the four earlier in his career, due, in part, to his versatility defensively. When Bosh played in Toronto, Deng would often defend the big man – usually successfully – when the Bulls and Raptors would face off. On Saturday, Deng saw limited action guarding Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki and put up a game-high 22 points on four three-pointers to go along with six rebounds.
“We looked at one unit where Luol was at the four, then we looked at another unit where C.J. Watson and Derrick were on the floor together,” Thibodeau said. “They’re all things that you want to get a look at and we know there are a lot of things that we have to clean up as we move forward. But it’s good to have everyone back so we can start to figure out what our rotation will be.”
It was yet another all-around effort by Deng that Bulls fans have repeatedly seen over the course of the 6-foot-8 forward’s All-Star season. Deng’s left wrist – which has a torn ligament on it – still appears to be bothering him, but he has sucked it up, like the rest of the team, and has battled through his various ailments, including the bruised ribs he sustained last weekend.
“I really liked the way he played tonight because I didn’t think he forced anything,” Thibodeau said of Deng. “He just let the game come to him and then you look up in the end and he’s got 20 points and he’s played great defense. You can’t say enough about what he’s done all year, playing through injury and just doing whatever our team needs – whether it be defense, hitting the boards. That stuff goes a long way.”
The Bulls are also hoping their eventual No. 1 seed goes a long way. Saturday’s win wasn’t a statement game by any stretch of the imagination – the defending champion Mavs rested guards Jason Terry and Jason Kidd and seemed disinterested at times – but Chicago is confident it will be able to cash in on the best record this time around.
That will be done one game at a time, without skipping steps.
“You can control what you can control,” Noah said. “Right now, it’s all about getting better. It’s all about getting a little momentum before the playoffs start. We know Indiana’s going to come ready to play so it’s going to be a playoff atmosphere in the [Bankers Life Fieldhouse]. It’s exciting stuff, man.”