<
>

Bulls playing for the top spot

CHICAGO -- The Bulls aren't the Miami Heat.

They can't toy with the concept of playing well enough to win, nor do they want to.
They rely on teamwork and a rhythm offensively and defensively that requires 10 players to operate efficiently.

And they care about the No. 1 seed in the East.

"You want to finish what you started, so we feel like there's still work to be done," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said before Saturday night's game against Dallas. "This is a chance for us to improve, try to clean some things up."

To that end, it was important that Derrick Rose return to the lineup against the Mavs. But it was just as important that things go as planned -- that is, Rose regain at least some of form while playing below his average in minutes and somehow the Bulls still win.

It wasn't perfect, but then no one should expect it to be. And the Bulls checked most of the boxes they needed to in a 93-83 victory.

Combined with Miami's loss to Washington on Saturday night, the Bulls now need any combination of one victory in their final two games (at Indiana and home against Cleveland) or one Miami loss among the Heat's last three (against Houston, at Boston and at Washington) to secure the Eastern Conference's top seed in the playoffs.

While the Heat lost by two to a Wizards team with the second-worst record in the NBA -- and did so by resting LeBron James and Chris Bosh and playing largely without Dwyane Wade, who dislocated his left index finger three minutes in -- the idea of coasting into the playoffs goes against everything this Bulls team has stood for under Thibodeau.

"Whatever Miami does is what Miami does," said Luol Deng. "Our record is something that we want, something that we played for all year. For everyone in this locker room, it doesn't make sense to just try to take games easy at the end."

This hasn't been easy while working around and through Rose's various injuries. Returning to the lineup on April 15 at Detroit after missing 13 of the previous 15 games, for example, Rose played 41 minutes in an overtime victory but then was unable to come back the next night in a deflating loss at home to Washington.

Against the Mavs Saturday, Rose played 16 1/2 minutes in the first half, checked back in at 7:01 of the fourth after exiting with 3:56 left in the third, and finished with 11 points on 5-of-9 shooting (1-of-3 from 3-point range) and eight assists in 31-plus minutes.

While Rose was not at his best, still lacking his usual explosiveness and a bit balky when moving laterally, he had his moments.

In the fourth quarter, his 11-foot jumper increased the Bulls' lead to six with 3:43 remaining, and in seven minutes of the final period, he had three assists while also initiating the offense with secondary passes to help maintain a comfortable enough cushion down the stretch.

"During the game, I was just trying to pace myself, trying not to do anything that would re-injure myself [like] driving to the hole, just trying to take the game easy but play smart," Rose said.

He said the sore ankle throbbed a bit but felt more like a manageable injury than it has at any time over the last two weeks.


"The great thing about it is we got the win," Rose said. "We've got a couple days off to get treatment, stay off my feet and ... hopefully in the next couple of days, it's going to get better and you'll see me my usual self, driving to the hole, trying to get fouled and trying to put a lot of pressure on the defense."

While the Bulls' defense was generally up to its usual standards -- holding the Mavs to eight first-quarter points and 39 percent shooting for the game -- the offense was uneven and at times stilted. Just the same, while not always working together perfectly, the starters supported Rose with good individual efforts: Luol Deng and Rip Hamilton finishing with 22 and 19 points respectively, while Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer had 14 and 10 rebounds.

"We looked at one unit where Luol was at the four. Then we looked at another unit where C.J. [Watson] and Derrick played together," Thibodeau said. "There are a lot of things you want to get a look at and a lot of things we need to clean up. But it's good to have everyone back. We can start to figure out what our rotation will be [in the playoffs]."

In Miami, while James was apparently fighting a losing battle with coach Erik Spoelstra to enter the Washington game late, Bulls fans were monitoring the scoreboard. With 3:42 left in regulation at the United Center as the Mavericks called a timeout, even Bulls public address man Tommy Edwards had his mind elsewhere, announcing "Timeout Miami."

Are the Bulls ready for the playoffs? It's doubtful anyone can say for sure at this point. But for the first night in a long time, Derrick Rose was feeling optimistic. And with a few days to apply steady ice packs, that's about as good as it's going to get for now.

"It was good, man," he said. "My spirits are up, just getting out there and getting a lot of love from the fans. It brought me up where there were times when I felt down. I just love the game, just being on the court, just being with my teammates, just being out there with the ball in my hands. It was an unbelievable feeling."