Clinching playoff spot won't excite Bulls

DEERFIELD, Ill. -- In baseball, clinching a playoff berth means champagne spraying, beer showers and probably a day off for the starters the following evening as the hangovers settle down.

The Chicago Bulls could have clinched an NBA playoff spot Wednesday night, had the New York Knicks lost to the Sacramento Kings. But the Knicks won.

When it does come time to mark the occasion, Joakim Noah might celebrate with rest, a movie and lots of water. And he didn’t put finger quotes around the word water; he actually meant water.

“We’re not worried about that,” Noah said after practice Wednesday. “We’re just trying to control what we can control -- work hard, stay focused on what we need to do, play good basketball down the stretch.”

Nobody would blame the Bulls for celebrating just a little bit. A team that was written off once Derrick Rose went down with another season-ending knee injury has made an impressive turnaround.

Most impressive of all, though, is that the Bulls aren’t just going to squeak into the playoffs. They could end up with the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference if they continue to play well down the stretch.

Continued growth from Noah and Taj Gibson, combined with steady play from Kirk Hinrich in the backcourt and the arrival of D.J. Augustin to play the point, has transformed the Bulls into a team that will make life difficult for opponents in the postseason.

There was a time when the playoffs seemed like only a dream: The loses mounted in December and Luol Deng was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in early January. Now the inevitable postseason berth will be met with a shrug.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau offered a “not really” when asked if he will acknowledge the moment. But, of course, he will.

“It’s important just to go step by step,” Thibodeau said. “If that happens along the way, that’s part of the process of working and improving and being ready for each game. Hopefully you get there. You’re doing everything with the idea you want to be playing your best at the end and as healthy as possible. We have to keep grinding away and we’ll take a shot at the end.”

Gibson also will keep it low key when the moment happens, but he admitted he wouldn’t mind a baseball-like celebration to mark the occasion.

“I wish we could do that, but we can’t, man. I don’t even think Thibs would let us do it anyway,” Gibson said. “It’s so different, because in baseball they play so many games and at the end of the year you deserve that. But in basketball, once you clinch it’s another step. You have to focus right away because teams in this league are hungry, no matter what. We understand that and we’re just going to keep pushing.”