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Friday, April 12, 2013
Bulls' drop to No. 6 seed no accident

By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Joakim Noah is dealing with a bad foot that won't heal until next season. Taj Gibson is battling a knee injury that will limit him. Derrick Rose hasn't slammed the door on the matter but it sure seems like he'll wait until next season to return.

And Sunday the Chicago Bulls lost to the Miami Heat 105-93 for their sixth loss in their past 10, knocking them a full game behind the Atlanta Hawks and into the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. That means a likely first-round match with the Indiana Pacers, who beat them three out of four times this season, and not the Brooklyn Nets, who the Bulls beat three out of four.

Things are not looking so good for the men of Chicago, it seems.

Except, quietly, sources have said the Bulls are not displeased with slipping to the No. 6 seed and feel like it may give them the best chance to make a run in the postseason.

It hasn't been purposeful; a Tom Thibodeau team is not capable of tanking. But the decision to put Noah and Gibson on the shelf -- thus giving them as much healing time as possible -- was not made without knowing that slipping in the standings wouldn't be the worst thing.

That may not seem to make the most sense considering this season's results against the Pacers and Nets. But the Bulls are going to be the underdogs in their first-round series no matter the opponent. Those familiar with the team's thinking say the low-scoring, defensive-oriented Pacers may quietly be a preferable first-round opponent. And staying behind the Hawks would keep the Bulls on the New York Knicks' side of the bracket -- a team they've beat in all four matchups this season -- and away from the Heat.

"I think [knowing your opponent] is where your intensity comes from," Thibodeau said when asked about his team's seed. "The thing that makes the playoffs so exciting is the fact that you're playing the same team over and over again. That makes it even more competitive."

The Bulls know the Pacers. They know David West gives Carlos Boozer a lot of problems. They know Indiana plays a slower style that will turn the games into the physical, low-scoring affairs the Bulls prefer. They know all the minutes the Pacers starters have logged have worn them down a little, and it's why they're 2-4 so far since the beginning of April. They know there will be a lot of Bulls fans at the games in Indianapolis, which is about a three-hour drive from Chicago.

Sunday was the final time this regular season the Heat will deploy LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Wade didn't even take the team flight to Cleveland for Monday's game. That wasn't an accident.

There was some desire to get the Bulls back for the loss in Chicago last month that ended the Heat's 27-game winning streak. But the Heat also came into the game knowing they could help themselves a bit and avoid seeing the Bulls again until the Eastern Conference finals at the earliest. The Heat are confident against every opponent at this point, but it's no secret that Chicago's physical play and their size make it a bit uncomfortable for them.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra played James, who had 24 points in 35 minutes, and he played Wade, who had 22 points in 37 minutes. It was the most they'd played together in more than two weeks. In an period in the season where wins and losses has taken a backseat a bit, the Heat wanted to make sure they got Sunday's game.

"We look at the standings every day," James said. "We were aware of it."

The Bulls, too, played to win. As they do every night. However the final seedings sort themselves out -- the Bulls close at Orlando and at home against Washington while the Hawks finished against Toronto and at New York -- assume they will end up being a tough out.

"No preference (on who the Bulls play)," Kirk Hinrich said. "We need to play these last two games and get a healthy as we can be."