Does Bulls' strong finish really matter?

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Derrick Rose, right, talks to Kyle Korver during the fourth quarter Wednesday against the New Jersey Nets in Chicago. The Bulls won 97-92.

    Derrick Rose, right, talks to Kyle Korver during the fourth quarter Wednesday against the New Jersey Nets in Chicago. The Bulls won 97-92. associated press

  • Rasual Butler, left, guards the New Jersey Nets' Travis Outlaw during the fourth quarter Wednesday in Chicago. The Bulls won 97-92.

    Rasual Butler, left, guards the New Jersey Nets' Travis Outlaw during the fourth quarter Wednesday in Chicago. The Bulls won 97-92. associated press

 
 
Updated 4/14/2011 11:20 PM

One by one, the NBA's elite teams hit their slumps and slid in the standings.

The Bulls kept climbing, and when San Antonio's last-chance 3-pointer missed the mark in a loss at Phoenix on Wednesday, the Bulls were on top.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

As the playoffs begin, they stand alone with the league's best record at 62-20.

Hard to believe it turned out this way, especially considering the Vegas over-under for Bulls wins was around 46 before the season. They'll open the playoffs Saturday at noon against No. 8 seed Indiana.

"I'm definitely happy," Derrick Rose said. "I wouldn't like to be on a losing team. But what's the point of celebrating now if you get knocked out of the playoffs? We've got a big goal in front of us that we're just trying to achieve."

Heading into the postseason, the Bulls are the hottest team in the NBA by a wide margin. They've gone 21-2 since March 4. Their second-half record of 34-7 is the best in the league by 4 games. Dallas is second at 30-11.

Against the league's top eight teams, the Bulls have won an amazing 12 in a row. But most of those victories came at home and their toughest road challenges were early in the season, when Carlos Boozer was out with a broken hand.

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The most impressive accomplishment of the second half was winning back-to-back road games at Orlando and Miami in early March.

So what does this mean? Is it better to be running top speed when the playoffs begin, or does it help when a team catches its breath before beginning a long postseason run?

Not surprisingly, past results are inconclusive. Last year's two NBA Finals teams were decidedly cold when the regular season ended. The Lakers were 4-6 in their last 10 games, while Boston was 3-7.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau worked the bench with the Celtics last year and was asked his thoughts on the value of hitting the playoffs on a roll.

"I think the big thing is we were really concerned about health," Thibodeau said of last year's Celtics, which went from the No. 4 playoff seed to losing Game 7 of the Finals. "So you had to make a decision in terms of how much you were going to practice, who are you going to play.

"I think that impacted winning and losing more than anything else. But we felt that if we were healthy, we would have a good chance."

The Bulls played through significant injuries to Boozer and Joakim Noah during the season but are now relatively healthy. Ronnie Brewer suffered a sprained left thumb Tuesday in New York but will tape it up and be ready to go Saturday.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Noah is coming back from a sprained right ankle and left Wednesday's game after bumping his left knee against New Jersey center Brook Lopez. Noah insisted after the game he feels fine and doesn't want to give any more injury updates.

Once the Bulls collected win No. 62 against the Nets, Noah was more interested in talking about the playoff push.

"The best record doesn't help you win a basketball game," he said. "We have to go in the with the same mindset, to be on edge for 48 minutes, be really focused and understand that it's going to be tough and we're going to go through a lot together.

"Good times, hard times -- through all of it, we've got to stick together. We realize we can do something special."

Looking back at recent NBA champions, the trend definitely favors finishing the regular season strong, but there are mixed results.

In 2009, the Lakers finished 17-5. The '08 Celtics barely sputtered all season and finished with a 25-4 surge. The '07 Spurs went 25-3 before dropping their last three games.

The 2006 Miami Heat finished the regular season 7-9, then struggled to put away the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs before catching fire and winning the title. The '05 Spurs also finished slowly, going 12-10 over their last 22 games.

The 2004 Pistons produced one of the more unexpected championship runs of recent years. Detroit caught fire after trading for Rasheed Wallace at the deadline and finished 20-4. The '03 Spurs were hot from January on and won 12 of their last 14.

What about those 60-win teams that didn't reach the Finals? The most renowned playoff failure was Cleveland the last two years. In 2010, the Cavs rested LeBron James, finished the regular season 1-5, then lost to Boston in the second round.

The '09 Cavs, which lost to Orlando in the Eastern Conference finals, showed no signs of a slump. They went 16-1 in March, then 5-3 in April.

"I think if you establish a style of play where you don't have to change going into the playoffs and preparations are the same, it makes the adjustment a little bit easier," Thibodeau added.

"There's nothing easy about a playoff game. The intensity's great. The preparation is great and you have to bring your best."

Few teams in the past decade have approached the Bulls' finishing kick of 21-2. The '98 Bulls came close, going 20-4 at the end of the regular season.

Like Rose said, though, the current Bulls have done nothing yet.

mmcgraw@dailyherald.com

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

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