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Bulls have dealt well with adversity, need ‘house in order' for stretch run

Chicago Bulls forward Carlos Boozer (C) and the team on the floor meets with head coach Tom Thibodeau during a time out in the second half of the Bulls game against the Boston Celtics Thursday February 16, 2012 at the United Center. | TOM CRUZE~Sun-Times

Tom Thibodeau becomes the fastest coach in NBA history to win 100 games and could care less, his players only a little more.

“He’s very well deserving but we all understand that we’re playing for things that are bigger than that,” Noah said when asked about Thibodeau’s accomplishment. “We’re not playing for 100 wins. We’re playing for a championship.”

Three separate injuries to their best player and the near season-long absence of their biggest offseason acquisition have been mere inconveniences. Ask Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose about their participation in the Summer Olympics in London and they’ll tell you the time to focus on that is later. The debate in the locker room before Wednesday night’s win over the Raptors was whether the Bucks or Knicks will earn the eighth and final playoff slot in the Eastern Conference.

These Bulls are doing a good job of keeping their eye on the prize, all right, and that bodes well heading into the all-important stretch run.

“We want to be considered a championship team,” Noah said. “We know that to be a championship team you have to have championship-caliber everything, not just championship caliber players but championship caliber atmosphere. Thibs always says, ‘Is that enough to win a championship. Are we doing enough to be a championship team?’ It’s not luck. There’s a lot of things that go into it, having your house in order, staying on edge, things like that.”

The Bulls house is in order. Whether that will be enough for them to prevail over the Miami Heat in the playoffs remains to be seen. Here are three points of emphasis as they attempt to gather momentum for the all-important last leg of the regular season.

◆ The Bulls are playing as well as any team in the league, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to work on. The offense lags at times, as it did in the first half of Wednesday night’s win against the Toronto Raptors.

“We’ve got to play with a quicker pace,” Thibodeau said. “I like the pace we played with in the fourth quarter, scoring 32 points and when your defense is scoring, it puts you in the open floor more and that’s what we would like to do, and so, the blocked shots, making them miss, the long rebounds and everyone flying up the floor, that’s what we have to strive to do more of. It’s important to run late.”

◆ The Bulls have had some slippage defensively but have generally played at a very high level. That must continue. Everything starts with their defense.

“They just wore us down, grinded us down,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “That’s their game. That’s the kind of playoff basketball that you’ve got to play. It’s not an up-and-down game when you get to the championship level and that’s what a playoff team is about. You’ve got to keep the defensive focus for most of the game. You can’t have a four-minute lapse.”

◆ It’s not just about getting Rose and Rip Hamilton healthy but healthy and playing at a high level. That shouldn’t be a problem for Rose, who should have plenty of time to get back in game shape after his strained groin heals. It will be more difficult for Hamilton because he’s missed virtually the entire season with assorted injuries.

“There’s this notion that you can miss the entire season and come back in the playoffs and play well,” Thibodeau said. “I haven’t seen that yet. I don’t know what people are talking about. You have to build the right habits so you can perform well when it matters most.”