The Bulls probably never envisioned veteran center Nazr Mohammed being one of their most important players heading into the playoffs, but that's the way things are shaping up.
Joakim Noah's health remains a question mark. In his second game back after missing 13 with plantar fasciitis, Noah played just over 14 minutes Wednesday against Washington, producing no points and 1 rebound.
"He didn't score, but I like the way he was moving out there," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said after the contest.
The good news is Mohammed appeared perfectly healthy and produced a season-high 17 points in just 22 minutes. The Bulls got a tougher battle than they expected, but held off the Wizards 95-92 at the United Center. They finished the Derrick Rose-less regular season with a 45-37 record and the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Even if the Bulls had lost this game, they still would have matched up with the Brooklyn Nets in the first round, because Atlanta also lost Wednesday. Game 1 in Brooklyn is planned for Saturday.
Even though everyone but Rose and Vladimir Radmanovic (sore back) are healthy right now, the Bulls seem to be in a state of flux, with Noah and Taj Gibson returning from injuries and playing limited minutes, while Richard Hamilton and Marco Belinelli have shown mixed results since coming back from injuries of their own.
"I like having the problem of trying to decide on a rotation," Thibodeau said. "You'd like to have everyone completely healthy, but I'll take what we have."
Gibson, in his second game back from a twice sprained left knee, looked decent. He had 8 points and 4 rebounds in 21 minutes and took some hard hits from the Wizards. He's a Brooklyn native, so he's hoping to play well against the Nets.
"It felt good. It's just I have to work out and practice," Gibson said. "You're working out a little bit, but it's not the same thing like you're going against bodies in practice and moving the ball and being physical.
"I feel like once I get a solid practice in with the team and get my feet moving the way they normally do, I'll feel better."
Likewise, Noah delivered mostly promising news about his health as he soaked his feet in an ice tub following the game.
"I felt very rusty. I'm just happy that I didn't have too much pain in my foot," Noah said. "I wish I would have gotten more (playing time), but it is what it is. I'm just happy my foot didn't flare up too much on me tonight. We'll see where it goes."
Noah grew up in Manhattan, so he's also anxious to put on a good show in New York City.
"I get to go home play in front of my family and play in front of my friends," he said. "It's a big deal for me. I'm very excited about it."
Two other players who looked good on Wednesday were Carlos Boozer (19 points, 15 rebounds) and Kirk Hinrich, who knocked down 7 of 9 shots for 18 points.
Hinrich's defense against Deron Williams will be vital in the Brooklyn series, while Boozer averaged 21.3 points, 10.7 rebounds and shot 54 percent against the Nets in the regular season.
Mohammed, who started Wednesday in Noah's place, hit 7 of 12 shots and added 7 rebounds against the Wizards.
"That's the one plus, I think, from Jo and Taj being out," Thibodeau said. "I think that got Nazr into rhythm. He's done a great job all year just working. Even when he wasn't playing, the way he handled himself and the way he kept working on his game … then when the opportunity presented itself, he was right and ready. So he took full advantage of it and he's played extremely well."
The Bulls jumped to an early 29-8 lead, then watched the Wizards come back time and again until finally tying the score at 85-85 with 3:16 left on a 3-pointer by A.J. Price.
The Bulls answered with an alley-oop dunk by Jimmy Butler, a Hinrich runner in the lane and Luol Deng 3-pointer. Washington got two shots to tie the score at the end, but a Price 3-pointer was blocked by Gibson and John Wall drew air at the buzzer.