Bulls clinch playoff spot

SportsBasketballChicago BullsNew York KnicksDwyane WadeAntonio DavisAntoine Walker

There were so many reasons to doubt the Bulls.

On the eve of training camp in October, they lost starting center Eddy Curry and veteran leader Antonio Davis in a trade to the New York Knicks.

About three months later, they stumbled into the new year with an eight-game losing streak. For a while, they were horrendous at home, falling to 5-10 at the United Center.

On March 22, they plunged to 10 games below .500 with a loss to the Indiana Pacers and fell 3 1/2 games out of the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Through all the twists and turns of their 40th season, the Bulls never gave up on making the playoffs, in part because their demanding coach, Scott Skiles, would not allow it but also because they're young, proud and resilient.

While some Eastern Conference rivals came unglued in recent weeks, the Bulls put together their best run, and the proof was in Sunday's 117-93 victory over the Heat at American Airlines Arena that clinched a playoff berth for the second straight year.

"Everybody's happy we're going to extend our season," Bulls captain Kirk Hinrich said. "We're not going to be done on Wednesday."

Last season, the team broke a seven-year drought by advancing to the postseason with 47 victories. This team needs to win its last two games of the regular season—Monday at Orlando and Wednesday at home vs. Toronto—just to reach .500. It's in line with their season-long uphill climb.

"I'm really proud of the guys," Skiles said. "It's no secret the last couple of years we've been trying to rebuild and redo our team. There's a lot of teams that try to do that and can't sniff the playoffs. The fact our guys can get in is a tribute to the way they have been resilient and stayed with it."

The Bulls could enter the playoffs in as high as the fifth spot. At 39-41, they are tied with Indiana and Milwaukee but hold the eighth spot because the Pacers and Bucks have better records in Central Division games.

"We'll keep our focus on moving up," Skiles said.

"We have to keep fighting," forward Andres Nocioni said. "We have to be ambitious every time."

The Bulls are 10-2 in their last 12 games and are riding a four-game winning streak.

Miami clinched the No. 2 playoff spot last week, making the outcome of Sunday's game practically meaningless for the Heat. Miami coach Pat Riley rested his starters for much of the game.

The Bulls trailed by 15 early in the second quarter before Hinrich scored 10 of his 17 points in a 33-13 Bulls run.

"They were playing for something really big today and they got it," Riley said. "Today is not indicative of who we are. It is a little indicative of who Chicago is."

Heat star Dwyane Wade, a Robbins native, scored just eight points on 2-for-12 shooting and played just 20 minutes, a season low. His franchise record for consecutive double-digit games was snapped at 78.

Antoine Walker, another Chicagoan, led the Heat with 22 points. The Bulls' Luol Deng led all scorers with 26 points off the bench, eight days after suffering a concussion.

Deng is one of several Bulls who are banged up. Chris Duhon has all but given up on practices to rest for games because of back pain linked to a disc injury.

Even with injuries, Skiles cannot afford to rest anyone of importance. There's too much at stake, and they have come too far to let up now.

"We still have a chance to move up and finish .500," Skiles said. "We're going to play to win."

mxgarcia@tribune.com

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