Cleveland (61-17) at Chicago (37-40)

  • Game info: 8:00 pm EDT Thu Apr 8, 2010
  • TV: TNT
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In their latest game, the Cleveland Cavaliers gave the Chicago Bulls a break by beating their closest competitor for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot.

The Bulls, however, couldn’t take care of their own business.

Still needing to play catch-up for the East’s eighth seed, the Bulls open a critical stretch of three games in four nights Thursday at home against the Cavaliers, who may give LeBron James(notes) some rest with the NBA’s top record wrapped up.

Toronto leads Chicago (37-40) in a close race for the No. 8 seed and the right to face Cleveland (61-17) in the first round, and the Bulls had a golden opportunity to pull even with the Raptors on Tuesday.

Antawn Jamison(notes) scored 20 points and James had 19 points and 13 assists in a 113-101 win over Toronto, which also lost All-Star Chris Bosh(notes) with multiple fractured bones in his face.

The Bulls were facing a team already missing its star big man Tuesday, but an abysmal offensive performance held them back against Andrew Bogut(notes)-less Milwaukee. Chicago led 27-14 after one quarter, but scored a combined 24 points in the second and third en route to a 79-74 home loss.

“I think we have a tendency to relax,” said guard Kirk Hinrich(notes), who missed 12 of his 16 shots. “We relaxed and they cranked it up and they got more aggressive defensively and we never really had an answer for them.”

Toronto fell to Boston on Wednesday night, reducing its lead over Chicago to one-half game. The Bulls travel to New Jersey on Friday before visiting the Raptors on Sunday in a game that could decide the final spot.

The Cavaliers, meanwhile, have nothing to gain over their final four games but perhaps some rest. James played 35 minutes Tuesday - still his least amount of action since March 1 - but could see his workload decrease against the Bulls and Friday against Indiana.

“If LeBron plays, we have a better chance of winning,” coach Mike Brown said, adding that he sees Friday as the more likely day to seriously limit his starters’ minutes. “But I’m not going to compromise any of my guys just to get a win.”

Guards Delonte West(notes) and Daniel Gibson(notes) are likely to sit out Thursday, and Brown doesn’t anticipate Shaquille O’Neal(notes) returning in any of the next three games.

“Win, lose or draw, we want to continue to improve,” James told the NBA’s official Web site. “We don’t want to take a step back, even if (the starters) sit out. These are meaningful games for us to stay in our rhythm.”

James has averaged 25.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists in three relatively lackluster games against Chicago, which won 86-85 in Cleveland on Nov. 5 despite shooting 40.9 percent.

The Cavaliers won 101-87 at home on Dec. 4 and struggled to put away a Bulls team missing Derrick Rose(notes), Luol Deng(notes) and Joakim Noah(notes) in a 92-85 win at the United Center on March 19.

All three are back in the lineup now, and the Bulls likely need Rose to step up if they’re going to avoid a sixth loss in eight games to Cleveland. The reigning Rookie of the Year has averaged 13.8 points on 34.0 percent shooting in six career games against the Cavaliers.

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Thursday, Apr 8