NBA

Bulls ready to pull off shocker

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CHICAGO (AP)

It may seem like a colossal mismatch, a four- or five-game exercise before this wild season ends for the Chicago Bulls.

The way Joakim Noah sees it, everyone else could be in for a big shock. Particularly LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

``Everybody thinks we're going to get our (butts) whipped. And you know what, we're going to try to shock the world. That's what we're going to try to do. That's pretty cool, I think.''

Beating Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs would be nothing short of stunning, the most dramatic and unlikely twist in a season that's seen its share.

The most recent, of course, was the altercation between coach Vinny Del Negro and executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson, but there were plenty before that.

There were struggles early in the season and a lukewarm endorsement of Del Negro from management, fueling speculation that his days in Chicago were numbered. There was a run by the Bulls. Then, there was a 10-game losing streak.

Noah was sidelined during that stretch because of plantar fasciitis in his left foot, an injury that kept him out of 18 games and ultimately sparked the altercation between Del Negro and Paxson.

Yahoo! Sports reported Tuesday that Paxson walked into the coach's office and shoved Del Negro twice in the chest, grabbed his tie and had to be restrained in a confrontation over Noah's minutes after the March 30 home game against Phoenix. Del Negro, according to the site, did not retaliate fearing his contract would be voided and it would hurt future opportunities. The Bulls also hired lawyers to interview witnesses.

The Bulls got a crucial victory over Boston on Tuesday and secured the eighth seed in the playoffs by beating Charlotte on Wednesday, after another chapter got added to the Del Negro-Paxson story.

ESPNChicago.com reported Del Negro initiated the contact, which he denied. And general manager Gar Forman acknowledged an altercation in a statement.

The players, meanwhile, shrugged it all off.

Kirk Hinrich called it ``a non-issue to us.''

``We still had to go out and do what we had to do,'' he said. ``That was our focus.''

Derrick Rose added: ``Usually when you come into the game or you practice, your normal life goes away. Basketball is where you can escape all the things you think about normally in the day.''

On Thursday, the Bulls had a day to rest, if not reflect on this wild ride.

``It feels good,'' Rose said. ``It's supposed to feel good like we're supposed to be here. All the hard work you put into it, we've had some ups and downs during the season, but we fought through it and we're in the playoffs.''

There were times when the lottery looked like a better bet than the postseason, yet they're back for the fifth time in six years after their second 41-41 finish in as many seasons under Del Negro. They fell twice to woeful New Jersey and blew a 35-point lead in a loss to Sacramento, yet in the Eastern Conference they were able to get a seeding instead of pingpong balls.

They can thank Rose, who went from Rookie of the Year to an All-Star in his second season at 20.8 points, along with Luol Deng and Noah. Deng averaged 17.6 points after a stress fracture in his right tibia cut short last season, and Noah had a breakout year at 10.7 points and 11.0 rebounds.

Even so, they'll have a hard time duplicating what they did against the Celtics a year ago, pushing them in a thrilling seven-game series. Of course, Boston had a big hole in the middle with Kevin Garnett nursing a knee injury. Cleveland is looking healthier.

Shaquille O'Neal is expected to return from a torn ligament in his right thumb that has kept him sidelined since Feb. 25, and more importantly, James is healthy. So the Bulls won't benefit from a sidelined superstar, like they did last year.

``I think that we deserve to be here,'' Rose said. ``We're a young team. We still have a lot of confidence, trust in each other. It's just going to be a great challenge playing Cleveland. It's going to be fun.''

---

AP Sports Writer Mike Cranston in Charlotte contributed to this report.

Tagged: Bulls, Cavaliers, Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose

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