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Chicago Eyes the #7 Seed

   by Tom Stryker - 04/09/2006

If you don’t like the way things are going in the NBA, just wait a week or two and things will adjust. Look at the Chicago Bulls, for instance. Less than three weeks ago the Bulls were wilting, some 3.5 games behind the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But a recent four-game winning streak, including Wednesday’s big victory over Philadelphia, currently has the Bulls in the eighth (and final) playoff spot in the East. Chicago now has won six of its last seven games with its current starting lineup. And for all contenders and pretenders only two weeks remain before the “wait until next year’’ signs are hung.

A recent positive for Chicago is that, after a season-long rash of injuries, the team is playing healthy again - and will need to stay healthy to hang on to their current position.

There is still plenty of work to do, including a home rematch with the 76ers Saturday night, one that could really hurt Philly, if it loses. But Coach Scott Skiles and his Bulls are still eyeing even the seventh slot in the East and they currently are 1.5 games behind the Pacers for that slot.

Either way, should Chicago qualify, it has its work cut out for itself. The Bulls, if they hold on to the eighth playoff slot, would have to open against Detroit. The seventh slot isn’t tons better with the opening series then being against Miami.

Chicago has seven games left, including four at home, but next Tuesday’s game at the United Center will be a huge undertaking. That night Chicago must play the torrid New Jersey Nets, who recently ran off 14 straight victories. Chicago beat the Nets on March 7, 95-87 (in Chicago). The other five Chicago games are at Atlanta, home with Washington, at Miami and Orlando, and finally closing at home against Toronto.

Last year’s turnaround season in Chicago produced 47 victories. Currently the Bulls have 35 and certainly need more to lock up that playoff slot.

But early season foul chemistry has turned successful of late. And Skiles is happy with the way his kids have practiced and played. Veteran Kirk Hinrich continues to lead the Bulls with his 15.7 average, but Luol Deng is up to 13.9. Deng has been a monster lately. He was forced to miss the Bulls playoff series with Washington a year ago with a leg injury. Even though Chicago lost that opening series, Deng wants his own taste of playoff action this year.

Deng is a statistical key for Chicago. When he scores 20 or more points in a game, the Bulls are 15-4.

Reserve Ben Gordon continues to work the same kind of magic off the bench as last year. He averages 18.1 as a starter, but a solid 14.1 when coming off the bench. The Bulls are also getting plenty of help from Andres Nocioni, who has recorded five straight double-doubles.

One statistic Bulls opponents should make note of is how Chicago plays defense. The Bulls actually lead the NBA - holding opponents to .428 shooting.

The Bulls are one all-star player away from being an Eastern Division force. Their starting lineup is one of the youngest in the NBA - a fact not lost on Skiles and how he coaches his team. Patience has paid off in Chicago, but the dividends still will come in the future. Still, even at the No. 7 or 8 seed in this year’s playoffs, the Bulls will not be an easy out because of their ability to play “Dâ€쳌.

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