CHICAGO (AP) — The Chicago Bulls had just wrapped up their best regular season since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen collected their final championship, and Derrick Rose was in no mood to celebrate.
He’ll save it for later.
Kyle Korver came up big down the stretch to finish with 19 points, Rose scored 15 and the Bulls won their ninth straight, beating the New Jersey Nets 97-92 in the final playoff tuneup on Wednesday.
“I’m happy, I’m definitely happy,” Rose said. “I wouldn’t like to be on a losing team, but what’s the point of celebrating now when you can get knocked out in the playoffs?”
The top seed in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls had to wait to see if they would get home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. They were tied with San Antonio for the league’s best record when the night began, and if the Spurs beat Phoenix, a random drawing would decide the overall No. 1 seed because the tiebreakers were all even.
The Bulls led by as much as 13 in the second quarter and were up seven at the half, but found themselves trailing 68-58 after the Nets scored 15 straight midway through the third. They responded by running off 10 in a row to close the period and pulled this one out in the end, with Korver scoring seven in the final four minutes.
Rasual Butler scored 10, including the go-ahead 3-pointer in the final minute, and the Bulls got 50 points from their bench on a night when the starters spent much of the fourth quarter on the bench.
Rose was just 5 of 13 from the field. Luol Deng scored 11. Joakim Noah finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds as the Bulls finished 62-20, equaling their best showing since the 1997-98 championship season. That also put Tom Thibodeau in a tie with Paul Westphal of the 1992-93 Phoenix Suns for the most wins by a first-year coach.
“I’m happy for our team,” he said. “I think they made a serious commitment. They played hard, and they played for each other.”
The Nets got 21 points and 12 assists from Jordan Farmar. Brook Lopez added 17 points after scoring at least 30 in four of the previous five games, and New Jersey finished the season with its 11th loss in 12 games.
“Everybody is excited about next year,” Lopez said. “We’ll get to know each other better.”
The Bulls can now focus on their first-round matchup with Indiana that starts Saturday after a wild finish to the regular season.
They were trailing 84-81 after C.J. Watson hit a 3-pointer with 5:46 left, and Korver tied it when he nailed one from the right side about 1:15 later.
Lopez gave New Jersey its last lead at 90-89 when he hit a 10-footer with just over a minute left, but Butler brought the crowd to its feet when he buried a corner 3 in front of the New Jersey bench, putting the Bulls back on top 92-90 with 46 seconds remaining.
Kurt Thomas then blocked a driving Lopez, and Watson hit the second of two free throws with 22.8 seconds left to make it a three-point game.
Farmar missed a 3, and Gibson hit both free throws to make it 95-90 with 17.3 seconds left. Farmar immediately drove past Rose to pull the Nets within three with 11.8 seconds left, but Korver hit two free throws to preserve the win.
“We didn’t execute when we needed to,” Farmar said. “They turned up the defense.”
Now, things really are about to get interesting for the Bulls. They are favorites this time after winning 41 games and bowing out in the first round each of the past two seasons.
Their offseason makeover paid off in a big way and now, they’re looking to cash in.
“It’s a whole different environment,” Noah said. “You’re playing for something big. That’s what it’s all about, something you dream about playing in. Big stage. It doesn’t get much better than that playing in the NBA playoffs for the Chicago Bulls. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
NOTES: Chicago’s Ronnie Brewer missed his first game of the season because of a sprained left thumb but is expected to be ready for the playoffs. … Besides Thibodeau and Westphal, the only other rookie coach with 60 wins was Bill Russell.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)