Chicago (43-30) trails Cleveland (43-29) by just a half-game in the conference. Both teams are chasing Detroit for the Central Division lead and top seed in the East.
Because the three division winners are guaranteed spots in the top four, the Bulls are in fifth despite owning the third-best record in the conference. They would, however, have home-court advantage over the fourth seed in such a scenario by virtue of their better record.
The second seed would be advantageous for both teams for a number of reasons. First, the second seed will likely play a team with a losing record in the first round of the playoffs, while the fifth seed will play a division champion.
Also, the team that finishes second would be on the opposite side of the bracket from the top seed, while the fifth seed would be in line for a possible meeting with the East’s best team in the conference semifinals.
All that makes Saturday’s game a critical one. The Bulls have won two of three meetings with the Cavaliers this season and can clinch the tiebreaker between the teams with a victory.
“We’re looking at the standings every day,” Bulls guard Ben Gordon said. “We’ve got Cleveland up next, and every game is really important for us.”
Chicago has done an excellent job of limiting James’ playmaking ability in winning the last two matchups. James averaged 31.0 points, but just 2.5 assists, in those two losses.
In the Cavs’ lone win over the Bulls this season, James had 19 points and a season-high 12 assists in a 113-94 victory Nov. 9.
Chicago is on its second four-game winning streak of the month, having clinching a playoff spot with an 83-81 victory over Detroit on Thursday. Kirk Hinrich hit two of three free throws to snap a tie with 2.8 seconds left after he drew a foul on the Pistons’ Carlos Delfino.
The Bulls shot just 35.7 percent - their lowest mark in a victory this season - but shut down Pistons star guard Chauncey Billups (3-of-16 shooting) and took a 2-1 lead in the season series.
Chicago has won eight of its last 10, a strong finish reminiscent of the previous two seasons. The Bulls won 15 of their final 19 in 2004-05 and 12 of 14 to close last season.
“These last nine games are important for us,” Hinrich said. “The last few years we’ve fought hard down the stretch and we want to do that again. We’ve got a chance to win the conference. We’ve just got to take care of our business and we’ll see what happens.”
Cleveland has been struggling, falling to 2-4 in its last six with a 97-93 loss at New York on Wednesday. The Knicks shot 50.0 percent from the field, three days after Cleveland allowed Denver to shoot nearly 60 percent in the Cavs’ 105-93 loss.
“My concern is that defensively we are not bringing it,” Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. “We are not understanding what has gotten us to the level that we are at, which is at that end of the floor. We are not doing any of the things that we normally do that makes us a good defensive team. It is disappointing.”
The Cavs will also have to contend with red-hot Bulls center Ben Wallace, who’s averaging 8.1 points and 12.3 rebounds in March - his highest averages in a month in his first season with Chicago.