Bulls close season with win and prepare for Bucks

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By Sam Smith | 4.16.2015 | 2:58 a.m. CT

It’s the I-94 series, the colder by the lake series. But it should be heating up 6:00 p.m. Saturday when the Bulls open their 2015 NBA Playoffs in the United Center against the Milwaukee Bucks.

That’s because the Bulls gained the third seed in the Eastern Conference with a 91-85 victory and comeback from 18 points behind Wednesday against the Atlanta Hawks. The victory to close the season gave the Bulls a 50-32 record despite a season of injuries and disruptions when their regular starters were together just 22 games, going 17-5.

And by the second half Wednesday in the regular season finale there was concern once again as Derrick Rose, after scoring two points in 10 first half minutes, sat out the second half with what he said was precautionary with mild soreness in his left knee. His recent meniscus surgery was on his right knee. Rose was quick to say, as Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich skipped the game also to rest and plan to play Saturday, that he was fine to play Saturday as well. Given the circumstances, he saw no reason to push and risk anything in a relatively meaningless game.

Of course, the Bulls needed to win to gain the third seed ahead of Toronto. That means a second round series with the winner of Cleveland/Boston if the Bulls can defeat Milwaukee. If the Bulls had lost Wednesday, they would have opened the playoffs against the Wizards, who defeated them 4-1 in last year’s playoffs.

But the Bulls came back from falling behind 18 points early in the third quarter to win behind 23 points from Aaron Brooks, 21 from Jimmy Butler and 18 points and 13 rebounds from Pau Gasol.

Butler finished the season averaging 20 points for the first time in his career. Gasol recorded his 54th double-double, trailing just Artis Gilmore in franchise history. Nazr Mohammed played in his 1,000th NBA game. And the 60-22 Hawks didn’t play any starters in the fourth quarter as the Bulls came from behind.

“As far as a road (to a title), the highway (I-94 between Chicago and Milwaukee) is definitely a lot easier,” joked Brooks. “Catching a plane with the wind and turbulence in Chicago. No. Our goal is as any other team, to win a championship. To do that you can’t pick and choose who you want to play and who you want to go through. If we want to win a championship we have to beat everybody.”

And there’s not much chance of doing that without Rose, though he was relaxed after the game and discounted any suggestion he wasn’t healthy and ready to go. Taj Gibson did reinjure his shoulder. Gibson left midway through the third quarter after taking a cortisone shot at halftime. He said he’d be ready Saturday as well.

“A little soreness in my left knee,” said Rose. “Felt it at the end of the second quarter. So there wasn’t any point in pushing it. Just happy we won the game. The way we finished the game was great. Guys that played stepped up to the challenge; got to be happy about that.

“It’s an honor to be in the playoffs, let me say that first,” offered Rose when asked about his first playoff appearance since his ACL injury three years ago. “It’s nothing serious at all (his knee), just being cautious. If anything, resting I would say.

“I think I’m ready for it,” Rose added. “We’ll see. We’ve got a couple of days to get our bodies ready, get our minds clear. I think I’m used to knee injuries and my knees being sore. It’s just that it was the last game and we just didn’t want it to linger into a couple more days or something like that. So we just called it at the right time. My whole mindset going into these playoffs are no excuses and get the job done.

“We have a deep team,” said Rose. “Not only our starters are good, some of our bench players could start on other teams. We definitely have options. We’ve just got to find out how to use everybody. I’m just happy to be playing in the playoffs, to tell you the truth. It’s going to be a fun series. They’re a young, great team, great coach. They’re really going to push us to play hard. I’m happy with myself, happy with my play, happy with the games that I played in, even the half that I played in (Wednesday). Me being on the court is just to knock the rust off a little bit and find a groove. Saturday is no excuses and got to stay focused.

“I had it (the soreness) a couple weeks back,” said Rose, who added if it were a playoff game he would have played regular minutes. ”There wasn’t any point of fighting through it tonight. I believe in my teammates. I’m very, very encouraged about my team, about myself and about the future. I believe I’m one of the best players in the game. Still.” The Bulls will need that even if the Bucks, 41-41, are considered one of the less taxing matchups in the playoffs. It’s a Bucks team without three starters from the first time the teams met in November and who traded leading scorer Brandon Knight in midseason. Still, it’s a young team with big perimeter size and who beat the Bulls the last time the teams met, which was earlier this month. The Bulls were 3-1 on the season over Milwaukee.

The Bucks were perhaps the surprise team of the season after winning just 15 games last season and in what wasn’t a popular move hiring former Brooklyn coach Jason Kidd under new ownership. But Kidd has been impressive in the huge turnaround with a gritty team that is among the leaders in defense and shoots well generally playing small and fast. They’re also one of the better three-point shooting teams, smaller than the Bulls as they will try to exploit matchups with their quickness.

Though for most of the season ending game Wednesday, it didn’t look like the Bulls would be hunting Bucks. It was a slow and indifferent start for the Bulls, down 16-4 midway through the first quarter. Al Horford was giving Gasol problems with his quickness, a tactic the Bucks will try to employ as well. The Bulls rallied behind Brooks’ inventive shot making, as they would all game and finally pull ahead for good late in the fourth quarter when the Hawks went with reserves.

“I don’t think our team played very well,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “That was disappointing. But then we had a good stretch and worked our way back into the game. There were a lot of moving parts to the game. Turnovers I thought hurt us.”

The Bulls had 22 turnovers. But they had some good sequences with Nikola Mirotic making a pair of threes and a clever baseline reverse in the second quarter as the Bulls went back ahead. The Bulls trailed 49-42 at halftime and then looked out of it with an 11-0 Atlanta run to start the second half, the Bulls behind 60-42. Again, it was the smaller center Horford troublesome as the Hawks were impressive the way they spread the floor, moved the ball and closed fast on defense. But the Bulls hit them with a 17-2 run late in the third quarter mostly against their starters.

Not wanting to risk injury with nothing to play for, the Hawks sat their starters in the fourth. Behind Brooks, Butler and E’Twaun Moore, the Bulls pulled ahead in front of a raucous home crowd anticipating the vital second season. And perhaps some rides up I-94 as well. Bulls fans tend to gobble up half the tickets in Milwaukee when the Bulls are there with the lower prices. It usually makes for a welcoming venue for the visitors, though the Bulls will need more than moral support.

“We’ve got to step it up, our intensity,” said Brooks, concerned among many with slow starts. “We showed glimpses of that during the season, which is encouraging. But with that said, we’ve got to pick it up. They posted (us) up a lot; we’ve got to get that play down. I’m not concerned, just excited; looking forward to it. It seemed the first half we did the same thing, let them get off to a 14-4 lead. We bucked down.”

It might be the position the Bulls would like to see the Bucks in over the next few weeks.

Though they’ll have to earn it. “We just wanted to win (Wednesday); we wanted to secure a third seed,” said Gasol. “I think you have to build momentum going into the playoffs and that’s what we tried to do. We had some tough losses along the way. But being able to finish with four wins straight is important and now you build on it.”

The Bulls also began to turn around their previous home court issues with 14 wins in the last 17 at home.

“We have a deep team, guys who want to win,” said Gasol. “We had a rough year with injuries, guys in and out. We had a few guys (out) tonight, which is the most concerning to me, that weren’t able to play. So we have to get them back to have a chance to move forward. I hope we are healthy. Because when we are a full roster, healthy out there, we are a much stronger team.

“I came here to win,” said Gasol. “I came here to have an opportunity to win a title and I hope we can accomplish that. You don’t take anything for granted. You never know what will be the next year, tomorrow for that matter. So you have to really embrace and enjoy the point you find yourself in. That’s what I am trying. I am happy things have turned out so well this year for me, for the team. I just want to keep going.

“Get healthy. And then understand we have got to want it more than anybody else,” said Gasol. “The resilience we have, we have to turn it into determination and understand every game in the playoffs is critical and you have to give it your best efforts. Some nights are going to go your way a little more than others. But you are going to have fight through adversity. You are going to have to show what we are made of.”

It’s finally time. Hunting season? Read, aim. Is that a Buck?