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Bulls know threats in the East don’t stop with Heat

Derrick Rose Antawn JamisOmri Casspi

Derrick Rose, Antawn Jamison, Omri Casspi

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BULLS AT 76ers

The facts: 6, CSN, 1000-AM.

Updated: April 5, 2012 8:25AM

PHILADELPHIA — The focus has been so intensely on the Bulls and the Miami Heat that it seems a foregone conclusion they’ll meet in the Eastern Conference finals for a second straight season.

But while the teams have clearly established themselves as the top two in the East, memories nag Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.

Thibodeau was an assistant to Jeff Van Gundy in 1999, after the last lockout-shortened season, when the New York Knicks became the second eighth-seeded team to win a playoff series. They advanced to the NBA Finals.

Thibodeau believes a similar scenario could propel a lower-seeded team such as the Philadelphia 76ers, who host the Bulls at Wells Fargo Center on Sunday night, or the Indiana Pacers, who visit the United Center on Monday.

‘‘We were in a shortened season back in ’99, and we were really a much higher seed than an eighth seed,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s what can happen. We’d taken on a couple injuries early. We finally got healthy in last 10 games of the season, and we were fortunate. We were playing well, and we were healthy.’’

These Bulls have memories like elephants. They remember what coach Doug Collins’ 76ers did in the Bulls’ 98-82 loss in Philadelphia on Feb. 1, just as they haven’t forgotten the Pacers celebrating at the UC after beating them Jan. 25.

‘‘They’re a good team,’’ guard Derrick Rose said of the 76ers, who are 22-15. ‘‘We’re kind of mad the way they smacked us last time at their place.’’

Not only that, but the 76ers are the only team in the league allowing fewer points than the Bulls.

‘‘They took it to us up there last time, and we haven’t forgotten that,’’ forward Carlos Boozer said. ‘‘We’re definitely looking forward to playing them. They’re a very good team. They have a lot of good players. They are probably seven, eight, nine deep. They have a good second group of guys. Their starters are good. They play pretty good defense as well.’’

We still don’t know how the frenetic schedule is going to impact teams down the stretch. An injury or two could make all the difference, and the 76ers and Pacers appear to be the most dangerous secondary contenders, along with the Orlando Magic, the Atlanta Hawks and even the Knicks now that they have Jeremy Lin in the mix.

Any advantage helps. Now that the Bulls have recaptured the best record in the East, they want to keep it that way.

‘‘This year, more than last, they’ve been able to jell at the right time,’’ Boozer said of the Sixers. ‘‘Doug is a great coach, a great basketball mind. Last year he was trying to implement his system. This year they took hold of it and believe in it.’’

Don’t count out the veteran Boston Celtics, either. They could pose problems if healthy, although they could be dismantled by then.

‘‘Right now, every team the second half of the season is trying to get healthy and stay healthy,” Boozer said. “Being healthy is a big deal when the playoffs get here and you want to be jelling right. That’s something every team wants to do. We’re not different. We want to be healthy and jelling right and then throw the ball up and we’ll see what happens.’’

Few comparisons can be drawn between the NFL and NBA, but the 2010 Green Bay Packers and 2011 New York Giants looked like average teams before catching fire en route to Super Bowl titles.

History tells Thibodeau a similar scenario could unfold in the NBA this season.

‘‘You can get a team that ends up being a lower seed that really isn’t that seed, and if they get healthy, they can be very dangerous,’’ he said. ‘‘Even without it being like that, there’s a lot more parity than most people realize.’’

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