The Bulls are trying to catch the Philadelphia 76ers for a playoff berth. They finally are starting to play like they mean it.

On Saturday night, behind Kirk Hinrich's sense of urgency, the Bulls narrowed the gap on the 76ers to one game for the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot when they beat the Boston Celtics 100-94 before an announced sellout crowd of 21,799 at the United Center.

Their victory sets up three crucial games this week in the Bulls' playoff bid, one against Indiana on Tuesday and two against the 76ers.

"Kirk carried us," Luol Deng said. "Kirk stepped up and we followed him."

Hinrich scored 23 of his team-high 25 points in the second half. He rallied the Bulls from an eight-point deficit at the half and gave them their first lead with 4 minutes 26 seconds left in the game with a driving layup past Wally Szczerbiak, whom he ran into the ground in the second half.

The Celtics like to post up their guards.

"So it becomes a physical game," Bulls coach Scott Skiles said. "The fact they were running Kirk down in the post angered him a little bit and he responded very well."

Said Hinrich: "I was just really upset about the way I played in the first half, the way things were going."

Hinrich's biggest play was a defensive stop that had Celtics coach Glenn "Doc" Rivers in an uproar. With 1:15 to go, and the Bulls clinging to a two-point lead, Hinrich took a charge against a driving Tony Allen. If the call had gone against Hinrich, he would have fouled out.

"I thought that was the only play I had," Hinrich said. "I was trying to get to the basket, just try to beat him there and take the hit."

On their next possession, Andres Nocioni was fouled and sank two free throws to extend the Bulls' lead to 96-92. A dunk by Paul Pierce, who scored 18 points, brought the Celtics within two with 34.5 seconds left but they came no closer and fell victim to a 4-0 series sweep by the Bulls.

Szczerbiak led the Celtics with 28 points, but Pierce's 4-for-17 shooting was problematic even though he offset it with nine assists.

"Yes, they did a good job, especially corralling me when I got the ball in the paint," Pierce said. "I guess they were not going to let me beat them."

The Bulls ended up with five players in double figures. Deng, Michael Sweetney and Ben Gordon each scored 14 and Nocioni had his third straight double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds.

The game was reminiscent of the Bulls' victory a week ago. Gordon led a fourth-quarter comeback then and Tyson Chandler blocked Pierce's potential tying shot to give the Bulls a four-point victory in Boston.

"Every time we play Boston it seems like the same game," Skiles said. "They all seem to go down to the end."

Layups

The Bulls gave Randy Livingston another 10-day contract. . . . The Bulls set season highs for free throws and attempts from the line, hitting 36 of 46. "I'm grateful to have the free throws," Skiles said. . . . Perhaps because of his Chicago ties, Boston coach Rivers scheduled an extended stay here for the Celtics. They arrived Friday and depart for their game in Toronto on Monday.

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mxgarcia@tribune.com