Bulls catch spot in playoffs

Bulls catch spot in playoffs

MIAMI – Luol Deng got a nice gift for his 21st birthday. He’s headed to the playoffs.

Deng scored 17 of his 26 points in the first half to spearhead the Bulls’ rally from an early 15-point deficit, and Chicago also got 18 points apiece from Andres Nocioni and Ben Gordon to beat the Miami Heat 117-93 Sunday and clinch an Eastern Conference postseason berth.

“This was his present,” Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich said.

Chicago could still finish in a number of different spots on the playoff bracket, and Bulls coach Scott Skiles made it clear afterward that his team won’t be happy settling for the No. 8 spot – and a first-round meeting with Detroit.

“It’s no secret that the last couple of years we were trying to rebuild and redo our team, and there’s a lot of teams that try to do that and can’t get in the playoffs,” Skiles said. “For our guys to get in is a tribute to the way they have been resilient and stayed with it.”

Chicago’s win not only spoiled Miami’s home finale, it eliminated any hope Orlando had of sneaking onto the East’s playoff bracket. Philadelphia remained alive, but barely – one more win by Washington or one more 76ers loss would put the Wizards in and complete the East field.

And, almost certainly to the chagrin of the Magic, the Heat – who already have secured the No. 2 seed in the East – elected to rest Dwayne Wade for the final 21 1/2 minutes and Shaquille O’Neal for the final 16 1/2. No Miami starter played in the fourth quarter, with coach Pat Riley apparently deciding that avoiding injury was more important than anything else.

“Trying to be cautious,” said Heat forward Antoine Walker, who had a team-high 22 points.

O’Neal added 14 points in 20 minutes for Miami. Wade had only eight points on 2-for-12 shooting in 20 minutes, ending his team-record streak of 78 straight games in double figures.

“They were playing for something real big today and they got it,” Riley said of the Bulls. “We’ve just got to keep moving on, finish the season.”

Only the top four seeds – Detroit, Miami, New Jersey and Cleveland – are set for the East playoffs.

The rest of the seeding structure probably won’t be known until the regular season ends Wednesday night, but the Bulls – who snapped an 11-game losing streak at Miami – seemed overjoyed to simply secure a postseason invitation, whooping it up on the bench in the final moments as the arena emptied.

Hinrich had 17 points, eight assists and six rebounds for the Bulls.

Michael Doleac scored 12 points and Derek Anderson added 10 for the Heat, who had point guard Jason Williams (nine points) and James Posey (seven points) return from extended injury absences and start tuning up for the playoffs.

“Today is not indicative of who we are,” Riley said. “It’s a little bit indicative of who Chicago is. I was very conscious of minutes and then at the end, I was very conscious of health.”

And he wasn’t only referring to his team’s health. Riley left after the game to visit his ailing mother Mary Riley, 96, who still lives near the Schenectady, N.Y. area where he grew up. The team isn’t sure if Riley will coach when the Heat visits Atlanta on Tuesday.

Gordon hit his first 3-pointer of the game, giving him 10 straight makes from behind the arc following his 9-for-9 effort against Washington on Friday night. His streak ended later in the opening quarter, leaving him three shy of tying the NBA record of 13 straight shared by Brent Price and Terry Mills.

The Heat scored 35 points in the game’s first 11:50, then needed another 19:59 to score 35 more as Chicago held Miami to 39 percent shooting over that stretch.

That helped the Chicago dig out from a 15-point hole – and once the Bulls got the lead late in the half, they kept it the rest of the way.

Miami was down by 10 midway through the third, then got within 74-70 on Williams’ layup. But the Bulls scored the next 10 points, with Gordon’s 3-pointer putting Chicago up 84-70 with 2:15 left in the period.

From there – especially with Wade and O’Neal watching – the outcome seemed all but certain.

“We played well. We clinched it. It’s just a good feeling,” Deng said. “Now we’ve still got to play for a higher spot.”