The Chicago Bulls have put themselves in excellent position to host a first-round playoff series.
Finishing third in the Eastern Conference is also a distinct possibility, but to snag that spot they certainly can’t afford a letdown against the league’s worst team.
The Bulls look to win a fourth in a row and hand the Milwaukee Bucks a franchise record-tying 62nd loss Friday night at the United Center.
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Chicago (43-32) took a 2 1/2-game lead over fifth-place Brooklyn with Wednesday’s 105-92 win over free-falling Atlanta coupled with the Nets’ loss to New York. The Bulls have seven games to play while the Nets have eight.
Chicago is also tied with Atlantic Division-leading Toronto for third place, and neither team closes the season with a daunting schedule. The combined winning percentage of the Bulls’ remaining opponents is .396 while the Raptors’ is .360.
"We just want to finish the rest of the season strong," point guard D.J. Augustin said.
Augustin had 23 points against the Hawks to lead six Bulls in double figures. Chicago made 12 of 25 3-pointers, and the league’s lowest-scoring team (93.2 points per game) is averaging 102.0 during a three-game win streak while shooting 50.4 percent. The Bulls are 40-10 when scoring at least 89.
The Bucks (14-61) have allowed an average of 108.3 points in losing 11 of 12. The only two games they didn’t surrender 100 came in losses to Miami, which both times didn’t play Dwyane Wade or Ray Allen and jumped out to such big leads early it was able to give LeBron James and Chris Bosh extended rest.
Milwaukee lost to the Heat 88-67 on Saturday and fell 96-77 in Wednesday’s rematch. It marked the 11th game this season the Bucks never led.
One more loss and Milwaukee will tie the franchise record for most defeats in a season, set by the 1993-94 team.
"As we wind this thing down with seven games to go, the thing I want is see them compete," coach Larry Drew said. "We’re dealing with adverse times. This is really a good time to see what guys are truly made of."
The Bucks have lost 11 straight road games and are 1-21 away from Milwaukee in 2014, but did win 78-74 in Chicago on Dec. 10 in the season’s first meeting.
At that time, the Bulls, who won 91-90 in Milwaukee three days later, were struggling to find their way without Derrick Rose. They’re now surging to the playoffs thanks to the play of Augustin and Joakim Noah.
Augustin is averaging 17.2 points in his last 17 games, and Chicago is 16-3 when he scores at least 18.
"He’s saved our season," coach Tom Thibodeau said of Augustin, who signed with the Bulls on Dec. 13. "D.J. can beat you a lot of different ways."
Noah had 10 points and 10 rebounds Wednesday for his 40th double-double, and the All-Star center has averaged 7.4 assists since the beginning of March. He also leads a defense that ranks second in points allowed at 91.9 per game.
The Bulls have limited the Bucks to an average of 80.0 points in their three meetings and held Milwaukee to a season-low 31.8 percent shooting in an 81-72 win Jan. 10.
Noah sat out the loss to Milwaukee due to a thigh bruise and has totaled 29 points and 28 rebounds in the other two matchups.
Brandon Knight, who leads the Bucks with 17.5 points per game, averaged 11.5 on 26.7 percent shooting in the losses to Chicago. He is averaging 12.8 points on 29.7 percent shooting in Milwaukee’s last five defeats.