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Bulls to face Nets in playoffs

(MCT) CHICAGO — Tom Thibodeau said he wouldn't be checking the Hawks-Knicks score as the Bulls battled the Wizards Wednesday night, with the fifth and sixth Eastern Conference seeds undecided.

Turned out he didn't need to.

The Bulls downed the Wizards 95-92 at the United Center, rendering the Hawks' loss in New York meaningless. Their 45th victory despite myriad injuries _ including Derrick Rose sitting the entire season _ earned them the fifth seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Their first-round series with the Nets, whom they beat three of four games this season, begins Saturday in Brooklyn. If they advance past the opening round, they would face the Heat-Bucks winner.

"We know Brooklyn is a hell of a team," said Joakim Noah, who spent time growing up in New York. "They have a lot of offensive firepower with (Deron Williams) and Brook Lopez. They're tough. They rebound. It's going to be a tough series. But we're excited."

Thibodeau said a determination hasn't been made on whether Noah would start or come off the bench as he continues to battle plantar fasciitis in his right foot.

"We have to maximize what Jo can bring to our team," Thibodeau said.

While many teams rested their regulars in the season finales, Thibodeau used a fairly normal rotation both because that's how he approaches all games and because of the seeding significance.

Jimmy Butler played a team-high 43 minutes. Carlos Boozer played 38 minutes and posted his 44th double-double, which ranked fifth in the NBA, with 19 points and 15 rebounds. Nazr Mohammed, who would start if Noah doesn't, scored a season-high 17 points.

Noah, Taj Gibson and Marco Belinelli all played limited minutes as they continue to treat their nagging injuries, though Belinelli said his strained abdominal muscle felt OK.

Noah failed to score with one rebound in 14 minutes.

"I'm still rusty," he said. "I wish I could've played a little more, but it's a start. And I feel my foot reacted well."

Gibson, who again said he's struggling to adjust to the brace protecting the sprained MCL in his left knee, had eight points and four rebounds in 21 minutes. Gibson grew up down the street from the Nets' arena and said he would change his cell phone number to limit distractions.

"We'll sort (the playoff rotation) out as we move forward," Thibodeau said. "I still want to see how guys are moving out there. And then we have to see where we are minutes-wise with people and then also look at the matchups. In the playoffs, you're concerned about every matchup you have out there."

The Bulls led the Wizards by as many as 21 in the opening quarter and never trailed. A.J. Price, who had a game-high 24 points off the bench, led a second-quarter charge that featured a 16-0 run.

But at the end Hinrich split two free throws with 17.1 seconds left and Gibson blocked Price's 3-point attempt seven seconds later. John Wall's 3-pointer at the buzzer drew air.

And now comes the second season.

"I'm really proud of this team because this season wasn't easy," Noah said. "We've been through a lot. There were a lot of distractions, a lot of injuries. Regardless of what was thrown at us, we fought hard through it all.

"There were times guys were looking at our team and they were laughing. There were seven or eight guys on the bench. We just never gave up. That's something everybody should be proud of. And now it's playoff time. So let's go."

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