CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 15: Taj Gibson #22 of the Chicago Bulls rebounds against DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings at the United Center on March 15, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the Kings 94-87. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Taj Gibson; DeMarcus Cousins
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Updated: April 9, 2014 12:04PM
MINNEAPOLIS — It’s the tough-guy reply these days. Ask a Bulls player about possible first- and second-round playoff matchups and how their seeding in the Eastern Conference can determine their postseason destination, and the standard answer is, ‘‘We’re not ducking anyone.’’
Well, they should be.
There’s a reason the Bulls are in such a scramble for the No. 3 seed: The way the East stacks up, the No. 3 seed is one of the easiest paths to the conference finals. It would mean a first-round matchup with a Washington Wizards team without any real playoff experience and — as the Wizards showed Saturday against the Bulls — allergic to a physical defensive style.
Awaiting the winner of that series would be the winner between the Indiana Pacers and Charlotte Bobcats. Six weeks ago, it wouldn’t have been a question; the Pacers were the bullies of the East, hell-bent on capturing the No. 1 seed and keeping the Miami Heat from reaching the NBA Finals for a fourth consecutive season. Now the Pacers are broken — maybe beyond repair. Even if they get by the Bobcats, on the intimidation scale, the Pacers are a zero as far as the Bulls are concerned.
What does the No. 4 seed get you? Well, the Bulls would get to host a very dangerous Brooklyn Nets team in Round 1, and while Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are close to getting their AARP memberships, never discount old-man strength.
If the Bulls should happen to get by the three-guard attack of the Nets, they’d enjoy a trip to South Beach, where Windy City dreams go to die.
It doesn’t matter what the Heat has looked like at times this season. It’s a flip-the-switch type of team that plays at a level the Bulls have yet to understand or slow down.
The monkey wrench lies about 520 miles to the northeast. Like the Bulls, the Toronto Raptors have five very winnable regular-season games left.
With the Bulls playing the Timberwolves in Minnesota tonight — maybe the hardest game left on the schedule — the Raptors host the hapless Philadelphia 76ers.
On Friday, the Bulls host a Detroit Pistons team that quit sometime in February, while the Raptors host the borderline-schizophrenic New York Knicks.
On Sunday, the Bulls face the Knicks in New York, and considering what Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson love to do at Madison Square Garden, go ahead and mark the “W’’ down now. Meanwhile, the Raptors travel to Detroit to kick around what’s left of the Pistons.
Monday is basically a bye night for both teams, with the Bulls hosting the Orlando Magic and the Raptors hosting the Milwaukee Bucks.
Then it comes down to Wednesday, where neither team exactly has a cakewalk. The Bulls play in Charlotte, but the game could be meaningless for the Bobcats. The Raptors play in New York in what could be a meaningless game for the Knicks.
If the two teams finish with the same record, the tie goes to the Raptors.
‘‘It really doesn’t matter who we see [in the playoffs],’’ Gibson said over the weekend. ‘‘It’s all about playing our style. Let them think about us.’’
Tough-guy talk only goes so far.