Bulls' Rose admits it: Playoff pressure will be on them
The Bulls didn't necessarily look like the NBA's best team when they finished the regular season against the struggling New Jersey Nets on Wednesday.
The starters were outscored 25-8 at the start of the third quarter, but the reserves erased a late deficit and pulled out a 97-92 victory at the United Center.
Kyle Korver led the Bulls with 19 points and Rasual Butler knocked down the go-ahead 3-pointer with 46.1 seconds remaining.
The Bulls (62-20) finished the season winning 21 of their last 23 games and snared at least a share of the NBA's best record, depending on whether San Antonio won or lost at Phoenix late Wednesday night.
Inside the locker room, the Bulls prepared for a radically different playoff journey. The last two years, they were heavy underdogs against Boston and Cleveland. Now they're the No. 1 seed in the East and heavy favorites against Indiana in the first round.
"I'm even more anxious right now, because I've never been in the position in the NBA where I'm the top seed," Derrick Rose said. "The last two years, we were always the underdog. I'll have to see how this is going to go. There's definitely going to be pressure. I'm just anxious to see how we're going to handle it."
Joakim Noah, one of only three Bulls who were around for those two playoff series, felt it's a matter of how they look at this challenge.
"Even though we're No. 1 in the East, we're still going to go with that underdog mentality," Noah said. "Expectations really don't mean anything. Nobody believed we could win 62 ballgames this year, especially with the injuries we went through this year."
Noah thought back to the eve of training camp, when Rose made what turned out to be one of the all-time amazing predictions.
"The statements that D-Rose made at the beginning of the year, like 'Why can't I be MVP?' I remember when he said that at the Berto, it was almost like people were laughing," Noah said. "Look at what he's done now. At the end of the day, it feels good. I think we're hungry for more."
Rose, who scored 15 points in 30 minutes on Wednesday, is a virtual lock to win MVP.
New Jersey (24-58) was missing point guard Deron Williams and top rebounder Kris Humphries with injuries, but the Nets gave the Bulls all they could handle.
With the Bulls playing their normal starters in the third quarter, the Nets turned a 7-point halftime deficit into a 68-58 lead. After settling down on defense, the Bulls finished the quarter on a 10-0 run to tie the score. The Nets still held an 84-78 advantage with 6:37 left.
Thibodeau chose to stick with an all-reserve lineup of Korver, Butler, C.J. Watson, Taj Gibson and Kurt Thomas, who got the job done.
"I think it says a lot about Rasual," Thibodeau said. "He's been a great pro. He stayed ready, practices hard, is great teammate and made a lot of great big plays for us.
"I wanted to play our bench more and cut back on our starter's minutes a little bit. The way the game was unfolding, we were just looking for a group that could give us something."