Chicago 83, Detroit 81

CHICAGO, March 29 (AP) -- Kirk Hinrich's first attempt missed. His next two were on target, and a few seconds later, the Chicago Bulls let out a big sigh of relief.

Hinrich hit two of three free throws with 2.8 seconds left, and the Chicago Bulls clinched their third straight playoff berth, pulling out an 83-81 victory over the Detroit Pistons after blowing a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter on Thursday night.

They beat the Eastern Conference leaders. Now, their attention turns to second-place Cleveland, which visits Saturday.

"We're looking at the standings every day,'' said guard Ben Gordon, who led Chicago with 25 points. "We've got Cleveland up next, and every game is really important for us.''

Including Thursday's.

After Tayshaun Prince tied it with a put-back with 9.8 seconds left, Hinrich caught a pass at the top of the key and got fouled by Carlos Delfino on a 3-point attempt.

"I feel bad because this isn't the first time it's happened,'' Delfino said. "It's something that I have to get better at.''

Hinrich missed the first free throw, but the next two were good.

"I knew that I had three, so I thought I'd be all right,'' Hinrich said.

After a 20-second timeout, Prince caught the inbounds pass and launched a short pull-up jumper over Luol Deng as time expired.

It was the fourth straight win for the Bulls and their 11th in 14 games. They're three games behind Detroit, so catching the Pistons remains a long shot, but they're only a half game behind the Cavaliers in the race for the second seed.

After losing in the first round of the playoffs the past two years, the Bulls are looking for more this time. They signed Ben Wallace in the offseason and the expectations jumped. Reaching the postseason simply isn't enough this time, even if Wallace said, "We're not worried about our seed. We're just trying to become a better basketball team.''

Wallace did his part, grabbing 19 rebounds against his former team. And the Bulls had a 51-37 edge on the boards.

Prince scored 26 points for Detroit.

With a 77-65 lead and about five minutes remaining, the Bulls appeared to be in control. But the Pistons were within 81-79 with 48 seconds left after Chauncey Billups drove by Hinrich.

Rasheed Wallace then stole the ball from rookie Tyrus Thomas with 35 seconds left, and Prince put back Delfino's missed jumper to tie it at 81.

Thomas had arguably his best game, finishing with 13 points and 10 rebounds, and Hinrich scored 15. Luol Deng finished with 16 points but was just 6-of-18 after scoring a career-high 38 in Monday's win over Portland.

The Pistons were without stars Richard Hamilton and Chris Webber, who were back home with the flu. Hamilton didn't make the trip. Webber returned earlier in the day.

"You feel like you have to take all the pressure on yourself and take over the game,'' said Antonio McDyess, who had eight points and 10 rebounds. "This time, we just came up a little short.''

Rasheed Wallace scored 19 points, but picked up his 19th technical after Ronald Murray was called for a foul with 6:45 left in the third quarter. The next one will result in another mandatory one-game suspension for Wallace, who served one Sunday when Detroit visited Milwaukee.

With the top two teams in the conference in town this week, the Bulls had a chance to see how they stack up and - more importantly - boost their playoff seeding. Although the odds of catching the Pistons remain slim, the Cavaliers certainly are within reach.

The Bulls appeared to be in good shape early in the fourth.

They started it with a 10-2 run, turning a 61-60 deficit into a 70-63 lead, and Gordon and Ben Wallace played big roles.

After Hinrich scored to put the Bulls ahead and Thomas muscled in a basket over Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace got a lucky bounce. He drove the lane and, with Rasheed Wallace guarding him, threw up a shot that bounced off the top of the backboard, went straight up and fell through the net.

The crowd erupted.

Gordon hit back-to-back jumpers that made it 70-63 with 7:20 remaining. He answered Delfino's jumper with a 3, and Thomas' two free throws and two-handed dunk made it 77-65 with just over five minutes left.

"The crowd was really into the game,'' Thomas said. "If the playoffs are like that ...''

Notes: Wallace wore the Starbury II basketball shoe for the first time in a game on Thursday. Wallace is endorsing an affordable line of sneakers and apparel started by the New York Knicks' Stephon Marbury, with his own shoe - Big Ben - due out in late August or the fall. ... Besides Rasheed Wallace, Pistons coach Flip Saunders and Billups got called for technicals. So did Bulls coach Scott Skiles and Hinrich.

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