Just when everyone was ready to give up on the Bulls making the playoffs this season, they won consecutive road games against teams in a similar position, Indiana and Houston. The Bulls hadn't won two straight road games since late January.
Now the Bulls have a chance to really get themselves back into the playoff picture, but it will take a pair of wins this weekend. They host Detroit on Saturday at the United Center, then visit Milwaukee on Sunday.
Bulls scouting reportBulls vs. Detroit Pistons at the United Center, 7 p.m. Saturday
Radio: ESPN 1000-AM
Outlook: Here comes another must-win for the Bulls on their playoff push. The Pistons finished an epic nine-game homestand on Friday against Dallas. After this, they go to Miami and Orlando. Detroit has won two of three against the Bulls this season and C Andre Drummond has been unstoppable, averaging 22 points and 19 rebounds. PG Reggie Jackson (24.0 ppg) and SF Marcus Morris (21.3) are also averaging more than 20 per game against the Bulls. Newcomer Tobias Harris is averaging 16.4 points for the Pistons since arriving from Orlando. The first meeting at the United Center this season was Detroit's 147-144 victory in four overtimes on Dec. 18.
Next: Milwaukee Bucks at the Bradley Center on Sunday, 6 p.m.
-- Mike McGraw
"The guys played together. That's a huge thing,"coach Fred Hoiberg said Friday at the Advocate Center. "What's been a struggle with this team is fighting through adversity. We found a way to do that and get the momentum turned back in our favor. That's what you have to do. It's a long game."
Two wins this weekend are crucial for the Bulls, because it would clinch all three potential tiebreakers against the teams they are chasing. The Bulls already won the season series against Indiana 3-1. Two wins would give them the tiebreaker over Detroit based on better division record and they'd also win in a three-way tie.
They might have to get it done without two starters, though. Derrick Rose had an MRI exam on his hyperextended left elbow Friday and his status is unknown. Taj Gibson said he'll try to play this weekend, but it's not clear if or when he'll be able to be effective in a game because of a broken rib.
There were two obvious changes in these last two victories. First of all, Nikola Mirotic has been at the top of his game, scoring 28 points against both the Pacers and Rockets, while hitting 12 of 23 shots from 3-point range in the process.
"I think the biggest thing Niko is doing right now is just keeping things simple," Hoiberg said. "He's not taking the step-back contested shots. He's taking rhythm 3s, he's driving the ball to the basket straight line as opposed to trying to cross over. He's getting out in transition and getting himself a couple easy ones."
Mirotic hadn't produced consecutive 20-point games all season, but he went a whole month as a consistent scorer a year ago in March.
Another factor has been improved defense and a surprisingly helpful addition to the lineup is rookie center Cristiano Felicio. The Bulls could use some post defense against Detroit, since Andre Drummond has stomped all over them the past two seasons. In three meetings this year, Drummond has averaged 22 points and 19 rebounds against the Bulls.
Felicio has a solid body at 6-foot-11 and 266 pounds. And for a rookie from Brazil who was unknown until he showed up on the Bulls summer-league roster last year, he seems to have an NBA-ready defensive IQ, something offensive-minded guys like Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Bobby Portis lack.
"I've been telling the coaching staff all year, that they did a good job (finding him)," Gibson said Friday. "Cris is a sleeper. People don't understand. He's a talented young big man. He's one of those guys where you just have to leave him out there and he'll adjust real quickly."
Hoiberg showed a willingness to stick with the guys who were playing well in Houston. After the reserves rallied the Bulls from a 14-point deficit, Hoiberg used Mirotic, McDermott, E'Twaun Moore and Justin Holiday for at least nine minutes in the fourth quarter. Pau Gasol was limited to less than five minutes, while struggling Mike Dunleavy played just nine minutes all game against the Rockets.
"We've been limited a little bit physically but I think our guys are starting to feel better," Hoiberg said. "Pau's knee isn't swelling up as much after games. Jimmy is moving better than he was the previous couple weeks. We'll know more about Derrick here. Taj will be in and out these last (seven) games. Whoever is called has to play their minutes to the best of their abilities."
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