Bulls beat Nets, head into playoffs on winning note
HERB GOULD ON THE BULLS
The wait is over.
The Bulls ended an invigorating regular season with a wobbly 97-92 victory Wednesday over the New Jersey Nets at the United Center.
The final workout against the lowly Nets will give coach Tom Thibodeau more material to remind his players they are mortal when they deviate from his principles of success.
But aided by a three-pointer from Rasual Butler that gave them a 92-90 lead with 46 seconds left, the Bulls escaped. Butler, who was signed as a free agent March 3, was filling in for key reserve Ronnie Brewer, who was sidelined by a sprained left thumb.
Butler looks like another shrewd pickup.
‘‘He’s a great pro,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘He practices hard, he stays ready. He’s a great teammate. He made a lot of big plays for us.’’
Derrick Rose, who had shot a stellar 64 percent (23-for-36) in the previous two games, came back to earth, finishing with 15 points on 5-for-13 shooting.
After the Bulls’ signature defense failed them, though, the Bench Mob rode to the rescue. Led by 19 points from Kyle Korver and 10 from Butler, the bench provided 50 points.
‘‘I wanted to play our bench more and cut back on the starters’ minutes a little bit,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘But the way the game unfolded, I was just looking for a group that would give us something. The bench played great.’’
The victory gives the Bulls a 62-20 regular-season record, their best since 1997-98, when Michael Jordan led them to the last of their six championships.
‘‘It means we had a pretty good regular season, but now we start over,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘We’re 0-0. We have to understand how we got here, and we have to prepare for the playoffs.’’
The win also assured them of at least a tie for the best record in the league with the San Antonio Spurs, who needed a win in their late game at Phoenix to keep pace. The Bulls have posted the NBA’s best record four times before. Each time, they have followed that up with the NBA championship.
It was a splendid regular season, punctuated by a monster finish. Led by MVP front-runner Rose, the Bulls won 21 of their last 23, including their last nine, and finished with a 36-5 record at the United Center.
All of that good stuff has given them the top seed in the East, which they will exercise when they open at noon Saturday against the No. 8 Indiana Pacers, whom they beat in three of four regular-season games.
And all of that good stuff has left them feeling good. Not as chest-thumping good as their rabid fans. But good about what they have done to this point. And quietly confident about what they can accomplish if they tune out all the chatter and play the way they’ve been playing.
When Joakim Noah left the game with 5:29 left in the third quarter and sat on the bench icing his left knee, it looked like a worrisome development. But Thibodeau said Noah is fine.
‘‘He could have gone back in,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘I didn’t want to put the starters back in.’’
Up to that point, Noah, who had rolled his already sprained right ankle Tuesday in New York, had been having a very encouraging evening. Looking active and energetic, he wound up with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
‘‘He played well in the first half,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘He was active, high energy. That was a great sign. That’s two games in a row.’’
And now, the real adventure begins.