(AP) — Riding a season-high win streak, the front-running Miami Heat are starting to separate themselves from the rest of the Eastern Conference.
The Chicago Bulls, meanwhile, are just looking to win back-to-back games for the first time this month.
The Heat are on the verge of their first nine-game winning streak in a year, but they’ll have to defeat the Bulls on the road in the regular season for the first time in almost three years Thursday night.
Miami (37-14) has built a five-game lead on second-place New York in the race for the East’s top seed, and the club is showing every indication it can widen the gap further as it bids to repeat as NBA champion.
The Heat have won eight games in a row, averaging 107.6 points on 51.4 percent shooting – 39.8 from behind the arc. They last won nine in a row from Feb. 10-March 1, 2012.
A superb fourth quarter Wednesday got them closer to matching that run. Miami opened the final period by scoring the first 13 points to erase a 10-point deficit and outscored Atlanta 40-17 in the final 12 minutes of its 103-90 win.
“We don’t win games in 12, 24 minutes, 36 minutes,” All-Star forward LeBron James said. “We’ve got to take 48 minutes. It was a good test for us coming out of the break.
“It took us a little while to get into our offensive rhythm.”
The Heat tend to struggle offensively with the Bulls (31-22), scoring 91.0 points per game while dropping six of the last eight regular-season meetings, including a 96-89 home defeat on Jan. 4. They’ve lost nine of the past 11 visits to Chicago, last winning during the season on March 25, 2010, but did win twice at the United Center in the 2011 conference finals.
James has averaged 32.6 points over his last 17 games there – including the playoffs – and he scored 30 against them Jan. 4.
It seems likely he’ll be in for another strong performance since he’s averaging 31.0 points on 67.2 percent shooting while sinking 15 of 30 from long range to spur the eight-game winning streak.
Chris Bosh may be looking for some improvement after making 2 of 10 from the field to finish with six points and six rebounds against the Hawks. He was better against the Bulls last month, getting 14 points and five boards.
Chicago is looking to win back-to-back games for the first time since Jan. 28 and 30 after emerging from the break to beat New Orleans 96-87 on Tuesday.
“We all needed a little break,” said forward Carlos Boozer, who had 17 points, 10 rebounds and four steals. “(We needed to) get away from it, get rejuvenated, get recharged, especially mentally. Obviously, physically, too. We had a lot of guys who were banged up. Some of us are still banged up, but we’re playing through it.”
The Bulls are still hoping to have Derrick Rose back from last season’s left knee injury in time for the stretch run to the playoffs.
Boozer, though, feels they’re doing just fine.
“We’re a complete team,” he said. “We’ve got great players at each position.”
Boozer happens to be one of them, and he managed 27 points and 12 rebounds in the latest meeting with the Heat. However, he’s averaged 12.3 points and 9.5 boards over the last four home matchups – all Bulls wins.
Luol Deng, the team leader with 16.8 points per game, had only six last month versus the Heat after going 2 for 9 from the floor.
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