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Playoff success most likely as No. 3 seed, and Bulls have grit to get it



The facts: 7 p.m., Ch. 26, 1000-AM.

Updated: April 3, 2014 11:14PM

The Bulls are focused on the task at hand, but they’re not operating in a vacuum. They know that while they’re playing the 14-61 Bucks at the United Center Friday, the Raptors will be playing the 53-23 Pacers at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

That’s an opportunity a team with postseason aspirations can’t pass up. It’s a chance for the Bulls (43-32) to go a game up on the Raptors (43-32) in the all-important battle for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.

The reward of the higher seed is coming into focus: likely a better matchup in the first round against the Washington Wizards and — if they would be fortunate enough to win that series — a more winnable matchup in the conference semifinals against the fading Pacers instead of the two-time defending NBA champion Heat.

‘’I think they’re well-aware [of what the other teams are doing]. Their job is to know where we are,’’ Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said after the Bulls beat the Atlanta Hawks 105-92 on Wednesday night at Philips Arena. ‘’The thing is not to get distracted. This is a great time of year — everyone’s playing for something. You can’t get sidetracked.’’

Whether or not the Bulls can eventually challenge the Heat and Pacers in the playoffs, they are in a good position to at least get the chance by finishing with the No. 3 seed. The Bulls play only one of their final seven regular-season games against a team with a winning record — the Wizards (39-36) at Verizon Center on Saturday. And the Bulls should be ready for that one. They’re 7-1 in the second game of back-to-backs since Jan. 1. They were 1-6 before the New Year.

Everything else also is well within their grasp. Since losing road games to Sacramento and New Orleans in the first week of February, the Bulls are 12-0 against teams currently under .500. Overall, they’re 20-8 in that span, with the eight losses to teams with an average current record of 49-25 — including the Heat, Spurs, Thunder, Trailblazers and Pacers.

This is where the mental toughness that Thibodeau develops in his teams becomes a bigger factor. It was palpable against the Hawks, who where Thibodeau-ed in classic fashion on Wednesday night.

After the Hawks shot 10-of-15 from the field, including 5-of-6 from three-point range in the first quarter, the Bulls’ defense and will-to-win took over the game. The Bulls made every key play while the Hawks missed one opportunity after another.

Early in the fourth quarter, Hawks forward Mike Scott lost a shoe in the frontcourt. The Hawks’ offense stopped to allow him to put it back on — and Dennis Schroder threw up an air ball from three-point range. The Bulls rebounded and Jimmy Butler fed Joakim Noah for a layup that gave the Bulls an 85-73 lead. Even Kyle Korver got Thibodeau-ed: The ex-Bull hit 3-of-4 three-point shots in the first six minutes, but was 1-of-4 from the field and committed three turnovers after that. Nearly every pass he tried to make was deflected by a Bull.

Thibodeau spends the entire season building that kind of toughness. ‘’If you’re trying to build your habits at the end of the season, it’s too late,’’ he said. ‘’Hopefully we’ve been doing that throughout the year.’’

That work ethic usually comes with a cost as players filter in and out of the lineup with assorted maladies. But not this year. The Bulls have started the same lineup the past 19 games — a record for the Thibodeau era (the previous best was 15 in a row). Noah, who missed 12 of the last 15 games of the regular-season last year, has played in 73 of the Bulls’ 75 games this season, including the last 31 in a row.

‘’You never know what’s going to happen, but I think we put ourselves in a pretty good position,’’ Noah said. ‘’You can’t overlook anybody. Even a team like Milwaukee, which hasn’t won too many games — if you take teams lightly that’s when they can beat you.

‘’We know if we bring our game and play the way we’re capable of, we’ll have a good shot of getting that three seed.’’

NOTE: The Bulls waived rookie Erik Murphy on Thursday. The 6-10 forward, a second-round draft pick (49th overall) from Florida, scored six points in 24 games this season.


Twitter: @MarkPotash

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