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Paxson Talks About Bulls Making Playoffs
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 10
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It turns out it was a heck of a Friday for the Bulls.
That’s because after a one season absence, the Bulls returned to the NBA playoffs thanks to an Oklahoma City 84-81 victory Friday over the Charlotte Bobcats.
“It’s important for a lot of reasons,” said General Manager John Paxson, who made the key February trade that propelled the Bulls to win 13 of their last 20. “We felt we stumbled last year. When we got lucky in the lottery and were able to get Derrick (Rose), we all hoped we’d be good enough to make it.
“More importantly,” said Paxson, “it’s good for confidence. It gives Derrick a chance to play in the playoffs. Joakim (Noah) didn’t play last year. It’s still a fairly young group. We all know how different the playoffs are, the intensity and all. The only way to understand is to be involved. So it’s a good thing for us.”
With the Bobcats’ loss, the Eastern Conference playoffs now are set with the Bulls and Pistons the last two teams in. It’s still to be decided whom the Bulls will open against.
The Bulls, 39-40 and tied with Detroit, have an outside chance of moving as high as fifth, which would mean a series with Atlanta, which Friday clinched fourth with Miami’s loss in Boston. It looks like the slumping Magic, losers to the Knicks at home, will be third with Boston the No. 2 seed and Cleveland No. 1.
The No. 8 seed will open in Cleveland, No. 7 likely in Boston, No. 6 likely in Orlando and No. 5 in Atlanta.
“This is a step,” Paxson said. “None of us want to get overly excited because this isn’t the standard we want to have. With that said, there are three games left (Charlotte at home Saturday). All of us would like to get to .500 and play well these last three games. Maybe finish above .500. Our guys should be playing for that.
“We have nothing to lose,” said Paxson. “We’ll be playing one of the top three no matter where we finish. So why not just go out and lay it on the line and play and give it your best shot and see what happens.”
No one will expect—or predict—the Bulls to win a playoff series, perhaps even against Atlanta. But the Magic is stumbling. They are 3-3 in April and have scored more than 100 points just once. And Kevin Garnett remains out for the Celtics. He is expected back for the playoffs, but the Bulls beat Boston last month with Garnett out. The Cavs still are playing the best and beat the Bulls three of four, the last in Cleveland a blowout. But they all were before the February trade and the Bulls did have an overtime win the last time the teams played.
The Bulls seeding should become fairly clear after Monday’s game in Detroit against the Pistons, who currently are tied with the Bulls.
Though making the playoffs seems a small feat for a team that won six titles in the 1990’s and swept defending champion Miami just two years ago. But the Bulls fell in danger of collapse last year with the firing of coach Scott Skiles and then interim Jim Boylan, and then the uncertainty and early season failings with new coach Vinny Del Negro.
The Bulls had an ugly January and fell to 18-27 after losses to Oklahoma City, Toronto, the Knicks and Thunder.
Managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf criticized the team’s play in midseason, and there were rumors and speculation of Del Negro and Paxson being in trouble. But all of that has quieted with the trades for Brad Miller and John Salmons and the team’s much improved play since the All Star break.
“It wasn’t looking like we would be (in the playoffs),” said Paxson. “You’ve got to give the (coaching) staff credit for staying with it every day. The players, obviously, wanted this to happen. They kept battling, and there was no question we’ve gotten better.
“Getting John and Brad on board helped us immediately, especially when Luol (Deng) went down,” said Paxson. “If we were not able to do that we would have been in real trouble. The thing about a season is it’s long. People tend to want to analyze quickly and determine your fate quickly. You’ve still got to play all 82. Everyone worked real hard. It’s good for our players.
“I always like to see players rewarded when they don’t quit and hang with it and buy in,” said Paxson. “I’m really happy for them. And for Vinny and the staff it’s important the positive reinforcement with how much time they put in.
“We’ve done it, and it’s not like we’ve been completely healthy,” noted Paxson. “A lot of teams have had injuries. We’ve had our share. We could have faltered. The guys haven’t. They played through it. Even when we suffered bad losses here and there, we bounced back and righted the ship.
“One thing that happened is with all the injures, a lot of times the rotation was shortened,” said Paxson. “Some guys gained confidence with the minutes they got. So there was some benefit in that. Guys are playing a lot of minutes, but in this case with us it probably was good in finding confidence with the minutes.
“When Lu got hurt, if we hadn’t had John being able to step in and play like he played, I don’t see how we ever would have gotten here,” said Paxson. “He’s been a huge difference. We were pretty lucky there.
“We’ve been good at home,” said Paxson. “And even when we weren’t particularly playing well at home, we found ways to win those games. And I think Derrick’s contribution in those games has been really meaningful. We’ve come back in a lot of games. He’s done his thing, but didn’t really take control until the fourth quarter. He’s made huge plays for us in the fourth quarter to help us win some home games. We haven’t always played great at home, but we found ways to win. Which we could not say last year and early this year. This is a step.”
And somewhat unexpected this season. Now to see where it leads.