The Chicago Bulls clinched their third consecutive playoff appearance more than a week ago, but there is still much to be determined in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The Bulls look to solidify their hold on one of the conference’s top seeds as they begin a stretch of favorable matchups with a home game against the struggling New York Knicks on Tuesday.
Chicago (46-32) has used a late-season surge to pull into second place in the East with four games remaining. The Bulls are 14-5 since Feb. 28, including wins in seven of their last nine games. With two more wins, they would become the winningest Bulls team since Michael Jordan last played for Chicago in the 1997-98 season.
Reaching that mark seems likely as Chicago plays home games against New York (32-45) and Charlotte before facing injury-plagued Washington and New Jersey on the road to finish the season.
The Bulls still have an outside chance at the No. 1 seed in the East, but they could also finish as low as fifth and not have home-court advantage in the first round.
“Every game is an opportunity,” said guard Ben Gordon, the team’s leading scorer at 21.3 points per game.
Chicago missed one of those opportunities on Sunday, losing to third-place Toronto 103-89. The Bulls shot just 42.0 percent from the field and were outscored 31-17 in the third quarter as they had their three-game win streak snapped.
“We didn’t get it done tonight, so the best thing about it is we have another chance on Tuesday to regroup and hopefully get a win,” said Kirk Hinrich, who went 4-for-16.
The Bulls will look to bounce back against a Knicks team they have dominated over the past three seasons, winning four straight at the United Center and eight of 10 overall in that stretch.
New York is harboring very slim playoff chances. With their 91-83 loss to conference-leading Detroit on Monday, the Knicks fell four games behind the eighth-place Orlando Magic with five to play.
After falling behind by 10 early in the third quarter Monday, the Knicks used a 28-8 run to build a double-digit lead of their own. New York, though, was outscored 28-15 in the fourth quarter and lost for the ninth time in 11 games.
“Our margin of error is very slim,” coach Isiah Thomas said. “The little things that add up in the course of a ballgame in terms of a blockout on the foul line or mishandling an inbound possession, that ends up giving a team two or three extra points. Those type of things eventually hurt in the long run.”
New York can’t afford too many mistakes as it opens a three-game road trip. The Knicks have lost eight of their last 11 on the road, while the Bulls are a conference-best 29-10 at home.
The Knicks snapped a four-game losing streak against Chicago with a 103-92 win in their last meeting Dec. 22. Chicago leads the season series 2-1 heading into Tuesday’s finale.