CLEVELAND (AP)—For the first time since the final year of the Michael Jordan era, the road through the Eastern Conference playoffs will again go through Chicago.
Chicago, which has won six straight and 18 of 20, will have home-court advantage through the first three rounds of the playoffs. The Bulls hadn’t finished with the best record in the East since 1997-98, the most recent of their six NBA championships with Jordan.
Despite wrapping up the top seed, there were no celebrations in Chicago’s locker room.
“It’s good to be the No. 1 seed, but at the end of the day we understand that there is a bigger picture,” center Joakim Noah(notes) said. “We’re staying focused. It’s definitely an achievement and we’re excited about it.”
The Bulls, winners of five in a row and nine of 10 on the road, had six players score in double figures. Ronnie Brewer(notes) had 12 points while Derrick Rose(notes) added 11 points and eight assists. Noah scored 11 points while Luol Deng(notes) and Kyle Korver(notes) had 10 points apiece.
J.J. Hickson(notes) led Cleveland with 22 points and 15 rebounds. Daniel Gibson(notes) scored 14 points while Ramon Sessions(notes) added 13. The Cavaliers, who had won their previous two games, fell into a tie with Minnesota for the league’s worst record.
The Bulls, who barely made the playoffs last season and were eliminated by the Cavaliers in the first round, have made major strides under first-year coach Tom Thibodeau, who had been a longtime assistant with Boston.
“Last year we qualified on the last day and now we are the No. 1 seed.” Noah said. “That feels pretty good.”
Rose, a leading candidate for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award, gives his coach all the credit.
“Tibbs, man, is the coach of the year to me,” he said. “He’s been honest, holding everyone accountable, every time we step on the court.”
The players also reflect the business-like attitude of their coach.
“It’s the next step,” Thibodeau said. “We still have a ways to go. We’re not done. We have to keep playing and keep improving.”
Boozer believes the team’s chemistry is a major reason for the success.
“The good thing about our team is that we have all good guys,” he said. “We don’t have any jerks on the team, and in the NBA that’s rare.”
Despite clinching the East, Thibodeau doesn’t plan on resting his key players. The Bulls, who have three games remaining, trail San Antonio by one game for the best record in the league.
“You want to put as many things going in your favor as possible,” he said. “It doesn’t guarantee anything, but that’s how you have to approach it.”
The Cavaliers were trying to win three in a row for the first time since Nov. 5-9. Coach Byron Scott was unhappy with Cleveland’s 16 turnovers that resulted in 16 points for the Bulls.
“We did not help ourselves,” he said. “They are a very good team, but we didn’t do a very good job of taking care of the ball.”
Chicago led 54-46 at halftime, but the Cavaliers cut the lead to three midway through the third quarter. The Bulls scored 10 straight points and ended the period on an 18-6 run.
Hickson’s thunderous dunk brought the Cavaliers to 60-57 at the 7:06 mark of the quarter, but the Bulls scored six straight points, forcing Scott to call timeout. The run contiued on Deng’s layup and a basket by Boozer, giving Chicago a 70-57 lead.
Hickson scored two baskets for Cleveland, but the Bulls ended the quarter on an 8-2 run and led 78-63.
Rose’s two free throws broke a 14-14 tie midway through the first quarter, giving Chicago the lead for good. Cleveland cut the lead to 31-30 early in the second period, but the Bulls quickly built a 14-point lead.
Before the game, the Cavaliers honored their Hall of Fame radio play-by-play man Joe Tait, who is retiring at the end of the season, his 39th announcing Cleveland’s games. A banner bearing Tait’s name was raised to the rafters next to the Cavaliers’ retired numbers. Tait has called 3,381 Cavaliers’ games. His last one will be Wednesday against Washington.
NOTES: Noah hit a hook shot from about 35 feet at the end of the first half, but it came after time ran out. … The Bulls play their next two games on the road, Sunday at Orlando and Tuesday at New York. … Cavaliers F Samardo Samuels(notes) (groin) missed his third straight game. G-F Christian Eyenga(notes) has been benched for the last two games because he has missed two many defensive assignments.