Bulls 98, Bobcats 89

Joakim Noah came through the tunnel, made a left turn toward the

locker room and yelled for everyone to hear.

“Let’s shock the world!” he screamed.

It would indeed require a monumental upset for Chicago to

advance in the playoffs, but the Bulls overcame numerous obstacles

to get the chance.

Derrick Rose scored 27 points and Noah added 21 points and 13

rebounds in a 98-89 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats on Wednesday

night that gave Chicago the NBA’s last unclaimed playoff spot.

Despite the injuries, internal strife, trades and a horrible

stretch early in the season, the Bulls closed the regular season

with a three-game winning streak to beat out Toronto for the right

to face Eastern Conference top seed Cleveland.

“You know what I love about this team?” Noah said. “I feel

that even when times were hard, we went on a 10-game losing streak,

I feel like we never let down. We always believed in each other. To

be in this position right now is a great feeling, and I feel it’s

really deserving.”

Needing a win or a Raptors loss to New York to get in, the Bulls

quickly took it to the Bobcats, who were already locked into the

seventh seed in the East and a first-round matchup with

Orlando.

Chicago never trailed and led by as many as 18 points in

clinching its second straight playoff berth and fifth in six years.

It even led to a postgame locker room visit from former Bulls star

and current Bobcats owner Michael Jordan.

There wasn’t much for Jordan to see from his courtside seat of

his Bobcats, who couldn’t match Chicago’s intensity.

Tyrus Thomas had 16 points and nine rebounds against his former

team, while Gerald Wallace scored 15 points and Stephen Jackson 14

in limited minutes for the Bobcats, who were already looking ahead

to the franchise’s first playoff appearance.

“It’s going to be a great feeling,” Wallace said. “I’m

actually getting nervous right now.”

The Bulls will join them, even if it once looked unlikely.

Chicago struggled early adjusting to Ben Gordon’s departure in

free agency, including blowing a 35-point lead in a home loss to

Sacramento. That led to reports that coach Vinny Del Negro was

about to be fired.

Then the Bulls traded John Salmons to Milwaukee and Thomas to

Charlotte to clear salary cap space for this summer’s free agency

class.

Just when the Bulls appeared to be in good shape, a report

surfaced Tuesday that Del Negro and Bulls vice president of

basketball operations John Paxson got into a physical altercation

after a game last month over the number of minutes Noah played in

his return from a foot injury.

Not long after the Bulls released a statement downplaying the

incident, a healthy Noah was dominating the inside and Rose was

beating Charlotte’s guards off the dribble.

Chicago led 8-0 and 19-6. After the Bobcats got within 65-60 on

Boris Diaw’s hoop with 4:35 left in the third quarter, Rose scored

Chicago’s next eight points and the Bobcats didn’t threaten in the

fourth quarter.

Taj Gibson added 11 points and 13 rebounds for Chicago, which

sent Charlotte to only its 10th home loss.

“I’m very proud of the way the guys have hung together all

year, through a lot of things, and just gutted it out,” Del Negro

said.

Bobcats coach Larry Brown called the final regular-season game a

“dilemma.” He wanted to rest some starters, but also said he

didn’t want that to affect the Chicago-Toronto playoff race.

Asked what Jordan, who led Chicago to six NBA titles, wanted,

Brown replied: “I think he would want to do what’s right.”

So Charlotte’s regulars started. But then a key player off the

bench, center Tyson Chandler, suffered a hip pointer and elbow

injury in a nasty fall fighting for a loose ball.

An X-ray on his elbow was negative, and while Chandler didn’t

return, he was confident he’ll be ready for the playoffs.

“It’s just a hip pointer. I’m going to be sore, but at this

point, just another little thing that’s banged up,” he said.

Brown risked his starters little after that. Wallace, Jackson

and Raymond Felton, who struggled to contain Rose, played only 24

minutes apiece.

“They battled more than we did and I’m happy for them,” Felton

said of the Bulls. “I’m happy we’re both in the playoffs. It’s

time for the postseason.”

NOTES: Brown sneaked in a joke discussing how the Bulls have

been able to overcome numerous obstacles. “Chicago has not had an

easy year. To put themselves in the position they have it’s pretty

neat, even with people fighting,” he said, smiling. … Brown

later insisted the Del Negro-Paxson incident was overblown, saying

he’s had issues with several executives, including Jordan.

“Michael’s been mad at me,” he said. … Bulls assistant Bernie

Bickerstaff said he’s happy that Charlotte has reached the playoffs

for the first time. Bickerstaff was the franchise’s first coach and

GM, and took Wallace in the expansion draft.