Bulls playing for positioning down stretch

ATLANTA -- The Chicago Bulls say they want the highest seed they can get as they head into the playoffs in a couple of weeks. There's truth to that sentiment with eight games left -- but not of the complete variety. The reality for the Bulls is that while they would love to have homecourt advantage for at least the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the bigger motivation is to avoid a potential meeting with the Miami Heat in round two.

That's what makes the last couple weeks so important as Tom Thibodeau's team jockeys for position down the stretch.

The Bulls have said they aren't scared of any team in the league, but Miami is in their heads after being knocked out of the playoffs by LeBron James and Co. in two of the past three seasons. As of Wednesday, the Bulls would love to climb into the No. 3 seed by themselves because of the fact that Miami has vaulted the Indiana Pacers into the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

The three seed would also mean that the Bulls would miss a first-round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets, a team that has found its groove in the second half and has been red hot at home, winning 14 straight at the Barclays Center.

The key for the Bulls is that they must have a better overall record than the Toronto Raptors at the end of the regular season, assuming the Raptors can hold off the Nets to secure the Atlantic division crown. The Bulls and Raptors come into Wednesday night's action tied for third, but the Raptors would own the tiebreaker given that they would be division winners. The teams split the season series 2-2.

Predictably, Thibodeau isn't trying to look ahead or worry about pacing his team down the stretch.

"You just take it step by step," he said. "You start getting in trouble when you start jumping ahead and thinking about things like that. Just come in each day, put everything you have into it, concentrate, improve, focus in on Atlanta, then we'll worry about the other things as they come."

It's a message he's tried to impart on his players as well.

"We don't have time to think about (the situation)," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "Just got to live in the moment. I think we're in a good place right now. We got some big games coming up, we're trying to get the highest seed possible, trying to play our best basketball down the road, and there's really no time to exhale."

While no player or coach is going to come right out and say it, the fact is the Bulls have to be confident they could knock off the Pacers in a seven-game series. The Bulls are not concerned about the Pacers nearly as much as the Heat. The Bulls are going to have a tough experience no matter which team they play in the first round, but for now, they have to continue focus on winning games and avoiding Miami as long as possible.

"It's our positioning," Noah said of the team's mindset. "It's just the situation. If we were in third and we had a cushion then we could take about (resting here and there) -- we don't have that. We don't have that so every season's different, every opportunity's different. I think we're all on the same page with what we want. Just trying to take it day by day."