ORLANDO, Fla. -- Tom Thibodeau stood to the left of the large double doors that served as the entry to a joyous Chicago Bulls locker room Monday night and pondered the question that will hover over his team throughout the playoff drive.
"The question is are we going to be sharp?," Thibodeau said after a 102-84 victory over the Orlando Magic. "You're talking about playoff basketball where the intensity level is very high, and it's the same opponent over and over. And most often times the games are decided by one or two possessions. So how you match up with people is critical. A bad matchup for a minute in the playoffs is 10 points. So we got to be right and ready."
The key for the Bulls as they head into their final regular season game Wednesday against the Washington Wizards is that they feel about as ready as they can be. The fact that Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah made their return from injuries against the Magic gave the Bulls a much-needed emotional lift.
"You can see the way we were playing (Monday)," Gibson said of the emotional boost. "How guys were flying around on defense knowing that Joakim and me are behind to really negotiate the defense and really attack every shot coming up. We got a lot of blocked shots. Guys were talking, we were helping out the guards and that's what we need.
"We need a lot of energy late, and I told them I was going to play today. They had me on limited minutes, they had Jo on limited minutes, but we just wanted to be out there and really push the guys and know that we got to sharpen up. We got to get ready for the playoffs."
The Bulls have been able to stay afloat throughout the season and have even been able to pick up some big wins over teams such as the Miami Heat and New York Knicks, but they need everyone healthy to make any kind of run in the postseason. That's why just the sight of seeing Gibson and Noah back on the floor was so important to them.
"I think it's both the leadership and the energy that they bring," Bulls forward Jimmy Butler said of Gibson and Noah. "You see all those guys yelling when a big play happens. Or the hustle plays that they make. Just the way that they lead out there on both ends of the floor.
"I feel like you could put them in any situation to make our team successful. If that's them guarding a two man, they don't back down from any challenge. I feel like that's big. I think that's big for us because we can switch a lot with them. They can play multiple positions. They're a mismatch nightmare for any team."
The true nightmare for any team facing the Bulls in the playoffs is if Derrick Rose returns. It's a notion that doesn't seem very plausible at this point given that Rose has yet to play a second this season as he continues his recovery from a torn ACL. But it's an idea that the Bulls certainly haven't given up on.
The mental aspect for the Bulls hasn't changed much despite all the injuries this season. They are still confident that they can beat any team not named the Heat in the playoffs ... and even then they believe they can give the Heat a run for their money. The Bulls are hoping for the chance to prove all their doubters wrong and show they can still win a playoff series with or without Rose.
Even against a terrible team, Monday's win in Orlando gave them a glimpse how much fun the next month or two could be if they can stay healthy. If Noah can keep his aching foot intact and Gibson's knee can stay together combined with everyone else's health, the Bulls will be a threat in the playoffs.
"It's like having a car and you're missing a couple pieces it ain't going to run as smoothly," Bulls forward Carlos Boozer said. "But when you've got everybody back out there and you've got all your parts to your car, it runs pretty good. So for us, it's great to see Taj back out there, it's great to see Jo back out there. Hopefully we can go into the playoffs healthy, we'll have our sharpness if we have everybody. Our chemistry is amazing. We play really well together and that's one of our strengths.
"We'll do our job and let the rest of it take care of itself. But the biggest thing is being healthy going into the playoffs. If we are, we can be very dangerous."