While other teams are resting starters to gear up for the playoffs, the Bulls dipped their toes into the full strength pond on Monday.
Or at least the 2012-13 version of full strength, without Derrick Rose. Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson returned to the lineup in limited minutes Monday and the Bulls rolled past the Orlando Magic 102-84 at the Amway Center.
Noah missed 12 of the previous 13 games with plantar fasciitis in his right foot. He kept it to 14 minutes against the Magic, producing 6 points, 5 rebounds and 4 fouls.
“I'm just happy that my foot held up.” Noah told reporters after the game. “I think we're a pretty deep team. We just need to play together and get our chemistry right.
“The last game is important. It's that time of year, so it's exciting. We've got a ways to go, but we're fighters and we're excited for the challenge.”
Gibson missed 17 of the previous 24 contests due to a twice-injured left knee sprain. He stayed on the floor for 21 minutes against Orlando and scored 12 points, with 1 rebound and 2 blocks.
In many ways, Noah and Gibson are the cornerstones of the Bulls defense, because they protect the lane well, but are quick enough to switch onto smaller players.
“We want to be at full strength,” Thibodeau said before the game. “I think that's important. It gives us a lot more balance, offensively and defensively. It allows us to play inside-out offensively. And then defensively it adds a lot more size, obviously, which we think is critical.”
The victory also kept hopes alive for landing the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls (44-37) finish the regular season at home Wednesday against Washington, but their playoff destiny depends on the Atlanta Hawks.
If the Hawks lose one of their last two games — home against Toronto on Tuesday, then at New York on Wednesday — then a win against the Wizards would place the Bulls fifth and they'd play Brooklyn in the first round.
If Atlanta wins its final two games, the Bulls will be No. 6 and face Indiana, no matter what they do against Washington.
Of course, many will argue that the seed hardly matters. The Bulls went 3-1 against the Nets this season and 1-3 against the Pacers. But Indiana has some injury concerns with George Hill and David West, Danny Granger is out for the year, and Paul George will be in his first go-round as the team's go-to scorer in the postseason.
If the Bulls managed to beat the Pacers, they would most likely get New York (0-4 vs. Bulls) in the second round instead of Miami, if they were fifth.
Against Orlando, Carlos Boozer hit 11 of 15 shots for 22 points. Luol Deng had 18 points and 8 assists, while Marco Belinelli (16 points) and Kirk Hinrich (14 points, 4-for-6 on 3-pointers) turned in promising performances. The Bulls shot 56 percent overall and racked up 33 assists.
“It's like having a car that's missing a couple of pieces,” Boozer said of the Bulls injury issues. “It ain't going to run as smooth. But once we've got everybody back out there, once you've got the parts on the car, it runs pretty good.”
According to Bulls radio statistician Jeff Mangurten, the Bulls will become the first team in NBA history to complete an 82-game regular season without a winning or losing streak of at least four games.
Orlando moved into a tie with Charlotte for the league's worst record.
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