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.
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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.