With so many things out of the Bulls’ hands this season, Wednesday was the one night where plenty was in their control as they could’ve clinched the third seed with a win against the Atlanta Hawks.
But the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference — one with nothing to play for, it should be added — gave the Bulls another taste of what a potential second-round matchup could look like if it were in the cards.
But after giving the Bulls some old-fashioned ‘tussin, the Hawks rested their starting group — one that ran circles around the Bulls’ first five — making way for the beat-up Bulls to make a comeback.
And some unlikely Bulls led the charge in their third-seed clinching 91-85 win at the United Center, sealing a matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks when the playoffs begin this weekend.
In case one didn’t notice, this riddled team hit the 50-win mark this season, leaving them encouraged about the season to date.
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“Overall we took a huge hit when Derrick went down and it wasn’t just that,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, the man charged with keeping this boat afloat for seven months.
“We had Jimmy (Butler) and Taj (Gibson) go down to survive that stretch. When you have a lot of moving parts it can get choppy (and) we have to hit the ground running.”
They didn’t hit the ground running Wednesday, looking like they would have to face the team that sent them home last spring, the Washington Wizards, after falling behind by double digits early and trailing by as many as 18 in the second half.
“I don’t think our team played very well,” Thibodeau said. “That was disappointing but then we had a good stretch and worked our way back into the game. Turnovers hurt us.”
The Bulls turned it over 22 times due to the swarming Hawks defense, and barely got over the 40 percent mark, while shooting just 29 percent from three.
But consecutive triples from Aaron Brooks gave the Bulls an 87-82 lead with four minutes left, after Nazr Mohammed and E’Twaun Moore added contributions early in the fourth to keep things afloat.
Mohammed, in his 1,000th game, tipped in a Butler miss to tie the game at 77 with eight minutes left in the fourth, and Moore made a couple twisting moves to the basket to stress the Hawks defense until Brooks re-entered. Brooks finished with 23 points and six rebounds in 32 minutes while Jimmy Butler scored 21 in 41 minutes.
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Those contributions were clearly necessary given the circumstances, and things weren’t truly settled until Pau Gasol lightly pumped his fist after a lefty-layup over Elton Brand with a little over a minute remaining, giving the Bulls a 91-85 lead.
Had Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer chose not to rest Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver in the fourth, the outcome would’ve likely been different. Horford gave Gasol fits, with 14 points and seven rebounds, while Teague got into the lane at will in 22 minutes for 10 points and Korver’s endless activity was the fuel for the Hawks’ movement-based offense.
But the Bulls will make no apologies given the unforeseen circumstances that have haunted them throughout the year, and in this game.
Perhaps for precautionary reasons, Derrick Rose didn’t play in the second half after 10 first-half minutes where he uncharacteristically turned the ball over four times, with two points and two assists.
It was termed left knee soreness, not the knee that had been operated on in February.
He certainly didn’t appear injured, with nothing wrapped around his knees or ankles sitting on the bench alongside Joakim Noah, but it’s clear a strange bedfellow that was next to the Bulls for 82 games will follow them for games 83 and beyond—those darned injuries, evidenced by Gibson leaving the game in the third quarter with a left shoulder strain.
But the Bulls will head to the playoffs with a 50-win season under their belts, finishing this season with production across the board, just like all year. And there’s plenty of questions headed to Saturday’s playoff opener—just like all year.