Now a torrid 17-6 since the All-Star break, the Bulls have exhibited progress in ways large and small as they near a playoff run.
Friday night at the United Center, they found a new way to show some: They built an 18-point lead against the Netsand held it.
Check that. They expanded it.
Twice burned by the Nets in January games after holding that seemingly comfortable margin, the Bulls never trailed and cruised to a 105-74 blowout of a surprisingly soft New Jersey team that would be their first-round playoff opponent if the standings remained static.
That's because the Bulls maintained their tiebreaker edge over the Cavaliers, who defeated the Wizards, in the race for the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed.
Ben Gordon's 27 points led the Bulls, who played without Ben Wallace for the second straight game and also without recently redoubtable rookie Tyrus Thomas. Both players are ill.
The Nets' offense looked sick while shooting 34.2 percent and getting a mostly pedestrian game from Jason Kidd, who finished with nine points, six rebounds and six assists in 30 minutes.
"He didn't seem as aggressive as he usually is," said Gordon, who shadowed him along with Kirk Hinrich. "We put some pressure on him early."
Gordon iced his right wrist as the game wound down and said afterward it has been bothering him for three games and has affected his free-throw shooting. But he termed the pain "a nuisance" and said it wouldn't sideline him.
Luol Deng scored 24 points and had 12 rebounds for his team-high 16th double-double and Hinrich added 20 points for the Bulls, who started the same small lineup they used Wednesday against the Pistons. It features Thabo Sefolosha, who had nine rebounds, at small forward and Deng at power forward.
Again, the Bulls had crisp ball movement offensively and were surprisingly effective in guarding the Nets' larger perimeter players, who all feature solid post-up skills.
"At the three positions which you can make a case are our best positionspoint guard, shooting guard and small forwardthey have us in strength, they have us in size and they may have us in athleticism," Skiles said. "It's a team matchup-wise that is tough for us."
Skiles has downplayed any effect regular-season messages might have on playoff matchups. But he did stress the Bulls needed to play well, win or lose, for a simple reason.
"Both previous games we had almost 20-point leads, they turned it up and we didn't respond well," Skiles said. "We became passive when they became aggressive. That's always going to be disastrous.
"We don't want them feeling on April 22 or 23 if they are our [playoff] opponent that somehow in every game that they can just turn it on and blow right by us, which they have done in both games. We want them to believe we're going to be a legitimate opponent. So far, if I'm in their locker room and I had played both of those games, I would be thinking, 'We could probably just turn it on and the Bulls will get passive and we'll beat them.'"
Friday's performance, the Bulls' seventh victory in eight games, took care of that notion.
The Bulls are now a season-high 15 games above .500 and 20-4 at home against Eastern Conference teams, which bodes well for a team poised to seize home-court advantage for possible multiple rounds.
At 46 wins, the Bulls' preseason goal of a 50-victory season remains intact as well
"We're peaking at the right time," Gordon said.
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