Bulls refining an underdog mentality

DEERFIELD, Ill. -- The Miami Heat-Indiana Pacers matchup in the Eastern Conference finals has been a foregone conclusion for some time now, essentially since the Brooklyn Nets stumbled out of the gate and the Chicago Bulls lost Derrick Rose less than a month into the season.

Miami and Indiana played in front of a national audience Wednesday night and the tight battle did nothing to dissuade the notion that a titanic matchup is in store with a championship series berth on the line.

Not everybody is buying that scenario, of course, especially in the northern suburb where the Bulls make their practice home. In fact, Bulls point guard D.J. Augustin is somewhat annoyed that the rest of the nation has done everything but promote the potential matchup with Heat-Pacers T-shirts.

"Sometimes people say things they don't really know about," Augustin said after practice Thursday. "In the playoffs anything can happen. It's going to be funny to watch if one of those teams goes down, kind of have the last laugh at them. But we can't worry about that kind of stuff. We have to focus on ourselves, and we feel like we can beat any team in the NBA, East or West. That's the mindset we have."

Taken out of context, his "last laugh" comment would seem like bulletin board material. But rooting against the favorite is a time-worn tradition. And in Augustin's case, as a key member of the Bulls, he can actually help do something about it.

The Bulls have continued to ignore the talk that they are nothing more than another speed bump on the way to what everybody thinks is conference finals matchup destiny. They eventually rallied after Rose went down with another knee injury, rallied again after Luol Deng was traded, and are settling into their own skin with Augustin now running things from the point, along with Kirk Hinrich.

"We feel like with the group we have, we can beat any team we play against, and we have that mindset every game,' Augustin said. "To be honest with you, I didn't even know too much when I got here because I was with another team. I just know when I came in, guys were still focused even though whatever the record was. Guys were still focused and working hard every day and I tried to come in and do the same thing."

In 51 games with the Bulls, Augustin has averaged 14.1 points and five assists, helping to expand their inside-out game with long-range jump shooting. His 41.6 percent shooting from 3-point range not only leads the team, it is actually higher than his overall shooting percentage of 41.4 percent.

Teaming with Hinrich in the backcourt late in games has caused matchup problems for opponents, and the Bulls believe they can use a two-point-guard setup to their advantage.

But all that playoff matchup stuff is for later down the road. The Bulls have 11 games left, and they aren't even concerned with locking down their own playoff berth with a victory Friday over the Portland Trail Blazers, even though the team will start selling playoff tickets that day.

Coach Tom Thibodeau is never one to look too far ahead, so when asked when he thinks about the consensus that the Heat and Pacers are the Eastern Conference's best, he was neither annoyed, aggravated nor in a hurry to prove everybody wrong.

"It doesn't matter what other people think," Thibodeau said. "Everyone is entitled to their opinion. The only thing that matters to us is what we think."

That's what Thibideau said on the record to the media, anyway. One day earlier at practice, his motivational pep talk was slightly different.

"Like Thibs said, remember everybody that doubted you and remember everybody that talked bad," Taj Gibson said. "Just believe in ourselves and that's what we're doing right now."