Bulls earn matchup with Nets

Banged-up big men Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah will be needed against the Nets' Brook Lopez. Debby Wong/USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO -- Regardless of whether the Brooklyn Nets are the ideal first-round matchup for the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the NBA playoffs, it's the matchup the team didn't shy away from and ultimately earned.

The Bulls' 95-92 victory over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday in the regular-season finale wrapped up the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference and an opening playoff series which begins Saturday at Brooklyn.

Officially, the Bulls wrapped up the fifth spot late in Wednesday's game when the Atlanta Hawks fell to the New York Knicks to slide to the sixth spot, but the Bulls' victory meant they didn't back into the five-seed.

Yet while the Hawks rested key players, the Bulls did not as Luol Deng played 27 minutes, Carlos Boozer played 38 and Jimmy Butler played a whopping 43. At the very least, the Bulls head into the playoffs with their heads held high and their health as good as it's been in a long time.

Some pointed at the Nos. 4 and 5 spots in the Eastern Conference as less than ideal because a first-round victory in that matchup means the likelihood of running into the buzz saw of a Miami Heat team in the second round.

Joakim Noah, Richard Hamilton, Taj Gibson and Marco Belinelli all missed significant chunks of time after the All-Star Game, but all four will be available in the Nets series. How much they can play, especially in the case of Noah and his plantar fasciitis, remains to be seen.

"We have everybody back and everybody is in a rhythm and routine," Butler said. "We're getting to play with a lot of different matchups again. I feel like that's a plus for us."

The Bulls head into the series having won three of four from the Nets this season, but nobody considered that a signifier that they had an advantage. After all, as the No. 4 seed, the Nets have home-court advantage in the seven-game series.

"It doesn't mean anything," Noah said. "It's going to be a grind. The difference with the regular season is that the schedule has such a big impact on games in the regular season with back-to-backs and injuries. In the playoffs, everybody comes ready to play."

Noah played the final two games of the regular season but did not play more than 15 minutes in either game. He could even start the series coming off the bench as he did Wednesday.

"To the outsider there is more stock in the fact that we won the season series, but a lot of different things go into that, like who they're missing and who we're missing," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "I think much more important is how you are playing at the end of the season and who is healthy for you. They are tough. They have size and they have quality depth. We are going to have to play a complete game."

That complete-game theme has come up a few times down the stretch for the Bulls, and it ultimately meant success. In games against the Heat and the New York Knicks, teams that were on lengthy win streaks, the Bulls invested everything they had and came out with home victories.

But as Kirk Hinrich said, the playoffs are a different animal. The Nets have plenty of playoff experience, led by Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, who will provide matchup challenges for Hinrich and Butler. Another key matchup will be Nets center Brook Lopez against the Bulls' inside combination of Noah and Nazr Mohammed, not to mention the battle between Gerald Wallace and Deng.

"Everybody knows (Williams) is a dominant player in this league, and he's been doing it for a number of years now," Butler said. "He's going to be ready, but I think so are we."

The Bulls know the Nets will be feeding off the high energy from their new building and the fact that it will be their first playoff series in Brooklyn. But the Bulls will have their own energy, especially from Gibson, who grew up in Brooklyn, and Noah, who grew up in New York City.

"The playoffs at home in front of my friends and family, it's really special," Noah said. "Me and Taj have been talking about this for a long time. I don't even know what to say. I know it's going to be emotional. There will be a lot of drama. It's the playoffs. Whether I'm in Chi or in Brooklyn, I'm at home, so that's a good feeling."