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Bulls firing on all cylinders as playoffs approach

The SportsXchange

ORLANDO -- The Chicago Bulls will be starting the first-round of the NBA playoffs this weekend without home-court advantage, but Carlos Boozer believes they will have a more important advantage.

Boozer had 22 points Monday night and saw enough to convince him in a 102-84 victory over the hapless Orlando Magic that his Bulls are hitting their playoff stride at just the right time.

"I'm super excited for the playoffs to start," Boozer said. "We're getting people healthy and coming together now. I love us healthy. We're going to be a dangerous team. When we're healthy, we're a great team."

The Bulls, who had lost four of their previous five games, got a spark from the return of center Joakim Noah and forward Taj Gibson, who had been sidelined with injuries. Their return could be key for the Bulls, who will start the playoffs in either the No. 5 or No. 6 spot.

Boozer also left open the possibility of All-Star point guard Derrick Rose returning for the playoffs. Rose has missed the entire season after knee surgery, but he has been cleared to play, and worked out on the court Monday before the game.

"If he came back, that would be awesome," Boozer said. "And that could make a huge difference."

The Bulls (44-37) will finish the regular season Wednesday against Washington.

On Monday, they displayed a balanced attack. Luol Deng had 18 points and hit 8 of 11 shots. Marco Belinelli had 16 points. Kirk Hinrich had 14 points and hit 4 of 6 3-pointers.

"We've still got a lot of work to do," said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. "We've got to be our best in a short amount of time. We are a well rested team, but the question I have is 'are we a sharp team?' We have guys who haven't played a lot of minutes, and they're going to be called upon. The moment of truth will be here shortly."

Tobias Harris led the Magic with 20 points. Center Nik Vucevic had 17 points and 14 rebounds. Maurice Harkless had 16 points.

The Bulls (44-37) were playing their fourth game in five nights, but they had the better energy and dominated after a sluggish first quarter.

Marco Belinelli had 14 points in the third period when the Bulls turned their 12-point halftime lead into 22 points to start the fourth quarter. The outcome never was in doubt in the second half.

The Magic (20-61) offered little resistance. The Bulls shot 56 percent from the field (42 of 75) and made 9 of 17 from 3-point range.

"They (Bulls) just played with an intensity that was a different level than ours," Harkless said. "It just shows us how much better we have to get. We've got to learn how to play with these playoff teams. Hopefully in the near future we'll be a playoff team."

Although the Bulls were cruising comfortably in the third, volatile back-up Nate Robinson still managed to get his fifth technical foul of the season for chattering too much at the Magic.

The Bulls led 49-37 at intermission, riding a good start for both Boozer and Deng, who combined for 26 points.

Vucevic had his 45th double-double of the season secured in the first half with 14 points and 11 rebounds. Orlando led by as many as five points early in the second quarter, but the Bulls rallied late in the first half when Hinrich hit back-to-back 3-pointers.

NOTES: Noah returned to action after missing 12 of the previous 13 games with a right foot injury. Gibson had missed much of the past few weeks with left knee problems. "We just want to see where they're at," Thibodeau said. "Both said they were feeling well, so it gives us a chance to move forward." ... Thibodeau, who previously served as an assistant coach for the Celtics, looked visibly distraught when asked about the tragic news coming out of Boston earlier in the day. "It's unfathomable to think something like that could happen," he said. "It's just a terrible day." ... To illustrate how rough this season has been for the Magic, they became the first team in NBA history to lose four home games in a season by 30 points or more. They lost by 39 points to the Brooklyn Nets, 35 to the Toronto Raptors, 32 to the Atlanta Hawks and most recently, 32 to Boston, on Saturday. Since the franchise started playing in 1989, the Magic have lost only five home games by 30 points more. Four were this season. Despite the season-long struggles -- the Magic have the second-worst record in the NBA -- Harris has somehow remained optimistic about the near future. The Magic are expected to be just as young next season. "Our goal (next season) should be nothing less than the playoffs," Harris said. "That's got to be our mindset now."

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