Bulls still alive for playoff berth with victory over Cavaliers
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There was at least one more fight left in the Bulls. One more show of what might have been. Another tease in a season of disappointment.
The Bulls defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers for the third time this season Saturday, keeping alive their dim playoff hopes for at least another day. Their 105-102 victory at the United Center showed spirit and grit — two traits the Bulls have lacked far too often this season.
Unfortunately for them, it might not mean much come Sunday evenning, when the Indiana Pacers host the 21-58 Brooklyn Nets with the playoffs on the line. If the Pacers win one of their three remaining games, the 40-40 Bulls will miss the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season.
‘‘We have no one to blame but ourselves,’’ coach Fred Hoiberg said of the Bulls’ predicament.
Hoiberg took it a step further and talked about how hard the season has been on the players, on the organization and on him.
‘‘The big thing is, I have a great family,’’ Hoiberg said. ‘‘You try and lean on the people that mean a lot to you, and my family has always been my rock.
‘‘You have to talk and communicate, try and have great relationships with your players, which I think we’ve done a good job of this year. It hasn’t been easy — it really hasn’t — with the expectations where they were and the way this season has played out.’’
Hoiberg was correct about one thing: Little has come easy for this team — from Derrick Rose breaking his orbital bone in the first practice of training camp to finishing off the Cavaliers in game No. 80.
The Bulls dominated the fourth quarter, building a nine-point lead with 1:42 left. Still, the Cavaliers had a chance to steal the game with two seconds left on a wide-open three-pointer by Matthew Dellavedova. Fortunately for the Bulls, he shot an air ball.
After Pau Gasol split two free throws with 1.6 seconds left, J.R. Smith’s attempt for a game-tying three-pointer never had a chance.
The victory gave the Bulls an impressive 7-1 record this season against the Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, the top two teams in the Eastern Conference.
‘‘If you had told me at the beginning of the year we would be 7-1 against the top two seeds [in the East] and on the outside looking in [in the playoff race], I would have told you that you were crazy,’’ Hoiberg said. ‘‘It’s where we are. We had to come out and win.’’
Almost as surprising as the Bulls’ fight was one of the players who led the way. Rookie big man Cristiano Felicio came off the bench to score 16 points on 7-for-7 shooting and grab five rebounds. He also played with a toughness that led to Hoiberg playing Felicio over Gasol for most of the fourth quarter.
Hoiberg had been flirting with that idea for the last week and finally pulled the trigger, giving Felicio the chance.
‘‘We knew we had to win this game,’’ Felicio said. ‘‘I tried to go out there and play as hard as I can. [It] was a good night for me.’’
Sunday, though, might be very different.
Follow me on Twitter @suntimes_hoops.