Knicks-Bulls Preview

Finally healthy and playing up to their own expectations, the Chicago Bulls are focused on extending their positive stretch rather than worrying about where they’ll be seeded in the playoffs.

That shouldn’t be much of a problem with the injury-ravaged New York Knicks coming to the United Center.

While the Bulls go after their 24th win in 27 home games in the once-heated rivalry Saturday night, the league-worst Knicks hope to avoid setting a franchise single-season record for futility.

Playing without Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, Chicago (44-29) trailed Toronto by one game in the race for the Eastern Conference’s third seed following a 1-5 stretch from March 6-15.

The Bulls, however, have since won four of five to move ahead of the Atlantic Division champion Raptors. They shot a season-high 60.8 percent and made 12 of 23 from 3-point range in Wednesday’s 116-103 victory at Toronto.

Despite the resurgence, Butler said the Bulls aren’t playing with playoff positioning in mind.

”I think we can beat anybody,” the first-time All-Star said. ”I don’t think it matters what seed we end up in. We just want to win as many games and get in a rhythm and get rolling heading into the playoffs.”

Butler finished with 23 points on 7-of-8 shooting after he had 19 while missing 14 of 20 two nights earlier in his first game since missing 11 with a sprained elbow. He’s averaged 23.7 points in his past three meetings with the Knicks.

Gibson had two points in 14 minutes Wednesday in his fourth game back from a 10-game absence due to an ankle injury. He’s lost playing time to rookie forward Nikola Mirotic, who is scoring 20.6 per game over his last 14.

Rose, sidelined after knee surgery, is hoping to start taking contact in practice as soon as next week. Aaron Brooks has done a solid job filling in at point guard with 17.5 points per game in his last 10.

With Rose and Gibson out, Butler scored a career-high 35 and Pau Gasol added 20 points and five blocks in a 103-97 home win over the Knicks on Dec. 18. Gasol also had 21 points and 11 rebounds and Gibson contributed 22 and eight in a 104-80 road victory in the season opener for both clubs Oct. 29.

Chicago has won seven straight home matchups and is 23-3 versus New York at the United Center since March 2001.

The Knicks have a 2 1/2-game hold on the NBA’s worst record after dropping their last six. They played without Carmelo Anthony, Jose Calderon, Alexey Shved, Travis Wear and Tim Hardaway Jr. in Friday’s 96-92 home defeat to Boston.

New York (14-59) is on the verge of becoming the first team in the franchise’s 69-year history to lose 60 games.

”It’s a tough situation,” said forward Andrea Bargnani, who had a season-high 25 points. ”Everybody knows that. We can’t think about the record. We just have to keep our heads up and keep playing.”

Although Bargnani is averaging 17.3 points over his last 14 games, the Knicks have scored 84.8 per game on 39.9 percent shooting – including a 32.0 mark from 3-point range – over their last five.

That doesn’t bode well heading into a matchup with a Chicago team that has allowed an average of 95.9 points in its last 23 games after giving up an uncharacteristic 102.8 per game over the previous 17.