Chicago 100, Charlotte 81

CHICAGO, April 13 (AP) -- Kirk Hinrich thought back to his rookie season, when the Chicago Bulls won just 23 games and seemed about as far from contention as a team could be.

"We've come a long way since I've been here,'' he said.

They're heading to the playoffs for the third straight year, and this time, the expectations are higher. Another first-round exit won't do.

The Bulls believe they're a contender, and they're playing like it.

Ben Gordon scored 20 points, and Chicago tightened its grip on the second seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs by beating the Charlotte Bobcats 100-81 on Friday night.

The win was the Bulls' ninth in 11 games, and with two more left in the regular season, their odds of securing the No. 2 seed look good.

They moved a half-game ahead of fifth-place Cleveland and maintained a 1+-game lead over third-place Toronto, which beat Detroit. Chicago owns the tiebreaker over both the Cavaliers and Raptors.

"We realize Cleveland's right there,'' said Hinrich, in his fourth season. "We realize our destiny is in our own hands and just try to take care of business.''

Gordon did his best to make sure his team stayed ahead in that race, but he had help as Chicago (48-32) won its final regular-season home game. Hinrich scored 18 and Luol Deng added 14. Ben Wallace contributed 12 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks.

The 48 wins are the most for the Bulls since 1997-98, when they closed out the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen era with 62 victories and their sixth championship in eight years.

Walter Herrmann scored 14, and Brevin Knight and Alan Anderson added 13 apiece for Charlotte, which was without leading scorer Gerald Wallace and forward Adam Morrison. Wallace, averaging 18.2 points, left Thursday's practice with soreness in both knees. Morrison, second among NBA rookies at 11.9 points, missed his third consecutive game with a sprained left knee.

Emeka Okafor grabbed 11 rebounds but finished with just nine points after attempting seven shots - at least in part because of a defense that took away the paint.

"They swarm,'' Knight said. "They play you tough in the post. They make you move the ball to get good shots. They make you drive and converge and have to kick for shots. They're a good defensive team. So they did the things they wanted to do; we didn't hit enough shots to win.''

The Bulls locked up home-court advantage in the first round when they routed New York 98-69 on Tuesday, but a bigger issue is avoiding the fifth seed because that would likely come with a matchup against defending champion Miami.

Although the Bulls struggled at times early in the season, they're playing like a team poised to advance in the postseason after two straight first-round exits. A 35-15 record against the Eastern Conference bodes well for them. So does a 31-10 mark at the United Center, where they were 21-20 a year ago.

They set the tone at the start of the season, winning 14 of their first 16 at home, and "no thoughts crept into our mind about performing at home,'' Hinrich said. "In the past, we didn't get off to good starts at home. The crowd would start booing. For whatever reason, we wouldn't play with intensity; we'd tighten up a little bit.''

To Ben Wallace, the bigger issue is whether the Bulls can win on the road in the postseason.

"I've been on teams where home court didn't do a lot for us, and I've been on teams where we were able to go on the road and get wins,'' he said. "The biggest thing in the playoffs is being able to go on the road and get wins.''

Although Charlotte started the third quarter on a 7-0 run to pull within 56-49, the Bulls were in control most of the night. The Bulls served notice early on that they weren't about to have a letdown.

A cutting Tyrus Thomas caught a pass and electrified the crowd late in the first quarter with a two-handed dunk over two Bobcats. He then hit the free throw to complete the three-point play that increased Chicago's lead to 25-19 with 1:37 remaining.

As the halftime buzzer sounded, Wallace hit a fadeaway jumper from the wing that made it 56-42.

Thabo Sefolosha hit a 3-pointer as the shot-clock buzzer sounded to make it 100-79 with 3.7 seconds left in the game and send the fans home with free Big Macs. A few nights earlier, the Knicks accused Chicago of trying to run up the score, but there was no bad blood between the Bulls and Bobcats - just a large point differential.

Notes: The Bulls close out the regular season with games at Washington and New Jersey. ... Chicago G Adrian Griffin sat out with lower back spasms. ... Besides Wallace and Morrison, the Bobcats were without center Jake Voskuhl (sore left knee), guard Matt Carroll (lower back spasms) and Sean May (bruised knee).

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