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updated: 4/6/2014 9:45 PM

Who will the Bulls face in playoffs?

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  • Brooklyn's Paul Pierce steals the ball from Philadelphia's  Jarvis Varnado on Saturday. If the Bulls face Brooklyn in the playoffs, Pierce may be guarding Joakim Noah due to the team's three-guard starting lineup.

      Brooklyn's Paul Pierce steals the ball from Philadelphia's Jarvis Varnado on Saturday. If the Bulls face Brooklyn in the playoffs, Pierce may be guarding Joakim Noah due to the team's three-guard starting lineup.
    Associated Press

  • A first-round playoff matchup against the Nets' Shaun Livingston (14) and Deron Williams would be no cakewalk for the Bulls.

      A first-round playoff matchup against the Nets' Shaun Livingston (14) and Deron Williams would be no cakewalk for the Bulls.
    Associated Press

 
 

The race for playoff spots in the East has turned into a sprint.

The Bulls won their fifth straight game Saturday in Washington, but remain tied for third place with Toronto. If those teams finish with the same record, the Raptors would win the tiebreaker based on being a division champion.

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Is it possible for the Bulls to win out and reach 50 wins? They'll probably have to in order to land the No. 3 seed, because Toronto's remaining schedule is not very strenuous.

The Bulls also play five teams with inferior records. The toughest remaining game is the next one, at Minnesota on Wednesday. The Timberwolves just beat Miami on the road in double overtime, but lost to Orlando the next night with Kevin Love sitting out with a sore back.

So it's tough to tell what to expect from the Timberwolves, who have been eliminated from playoff contention. They'll be playing the Bulls on the second night of a back-to-back after facing San Antonio (60-17) on Tuesday.

After that, the Bulls finish the regular season with Detroit (28-49) at home on Friday, at New York (33-45) on Sunday, Orlando (22-55) at home on Monday and at Charlotte (39-38) next Wednesday.

The Bulls' magic number to clinch homecourt advantage in the first round is three, so it could happen this week. Whether they should rest players or keep battling for playoff position in the final days of the regular season is open to debate.

"You cross that bridge when you get there," coach Tom Thibodeau said this weekend. "I think the important thing is to play as well as you can and as long as there's something to play for, you should do that.

"In the end, if it makes sense and if someone's nicked up and rest is more important, then you do that. I don't want our guys thinking that way. I want us thinking about improvement and being ready to play."

If the Bulls end up in the No. 4 slot, they figure to face a first-round rematch against Brooklyn, but with homecourt advantage this time. If they're No. 3, Washington is a possibility in the first round, but Charlotte is just a game out of sixth place. The Bobcats and Wizards play Wednesday in Washington and Charlotte could clinch the season series with a win.

Given a choice, the Bulls would rather match up with slumping Indiana in the second round. But the Pacers and Miami are still neck-and-neck for the top spot, and there is no second round, obviously, without a first-round win.

Here's a deeper look at the Bulls' three likely first-round opponents:

Brooklyn: The Bulls and Nets are running neck-and-neck for the best record in the East since Jan. 1. The Bulls are 33-14, while Brooklyn is 32-13. The Nets have won 15 straight home games.

So Brooklyn is hot, but the Bulls still match up well. During most of this surge, the Nets have started a three-guard lineup with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Shaun Livingston. The last couple times they met, Paul Pierce guarded Joakim Noah,

Kevin Garnett played Saturday for the first time since Feb. 27. Whether Garnett, 37, has anything left for a playoff run is questionable, but the Nets have gotten decent performances from Mason Plumlee and Andray Blatche, while 6-9 Mirza Teletovic is a high-volume 3-point shooter.

Washington: Sure, the Wizards seemed overmatched against the Bulls on Saturday, but don't write them off as an easy opponent. Their best players -- guards John Wall and Bradley Beal -- have not been to the playoffs, but are a handful when they get rolling.

If the Wizards' 3-point shooters, like Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster, get going, the offense it tough to turn off. Plus, center Nene is working his way back from a sprained MCL and should be back for the playoffs.

Charlotte: The Bobcats may not seem threatening, but they have a couple of wild cards. First, there's coach Steve Clifford. Like Tom Thibodeau, Clifford is a former Jeff Van Gundy assistant and has the Bobcats ranked fifth in the league in points allowed.

Then there's center Al Jefferson, who can be one of the most unstoppable scorers in the league when he's on. Since the all-star break, Jefferson has averaged 24.7 points while shooting 53 percent from the field.

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