By Cody Westerlund-
CHICAGO (CBS) – About 45 minutes after clapping his way down the United Center floor and unleashing a primal scream to serve notice that a come-from-behind 106-98 victory against the Pistons was in hand with less than three minutes remaining for the Bulls, Joakim Noah paused for a moment in thought.
“Do I think we have killer instinct?” Noah responded to a reporter. “Yeah, we’re a resilient group. I think guys want to win really bad. There’s good character.”
Call it what you may – if not a killer instinct, it’s at the least well-timed urgency – but in a game that may define the postseason path they embark on, the Bulls answered the call Friday night. And this time, they reminded us that just when we think we’ve diagnosed this group, they have another dose of will in them.
Trailing by 18 with seven minutes left in the third quarter, Chicago stormed back on the strength of a 68-point second half, its second-most points in a half this season, and 15-0 fourth-quarter run to achieve its largest comeback of the season.
It couldn’t have been better timed, either. As the Bulls headed to the bench trailing 80-70 after the third-quarter buzzer, New York had just finished its 108-100 win at Toronto, which entered the night tied with Chicago for the third seed. Miami was also well in control against Indiana in a game that would send the Pacers on a path toward the second seed.
While every Bulls player asked denied partaking in any scoreboard watching until their own game concluded, they still sensed the magnitude of what is at stake in the season’s final week: a first-round matchup with a playoff newbie in the Wizards or the Bobcats instead of the veteran Nets and a potential second-round series against the reeling Pacers as opposed to the vaunted Heat.
“It’s all about who wants it more,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. “We just got to stay on the right path.”
Chicago is now 47-32 with three games left, while Toronto is 46-33 and holds the tiebreaker. A man who’s played for both teams this season was the difference Friday for the Bulls.
Reserve guard and crunch-time creator D.J. Augustin scored 12 of his team-high 24 points and added three assists in the final quarter. He’s been instrumental in the comfort the Bulls have found late in games, as they’ve outscored foes by 6.7 points in the fourth quarter of their season-high seven-game winning streak.
“We’re confident,” Noah said. “We’re a confident group. We never feel like we’re out of games. But we have to play better. I have to play better. But overall to come back and get this win, just find a way, it was good for us.”
As he always does, Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau refused to look ahead to the playoffs, saying, “If you start looking ahead at other things, you get distracted, and now you’re not locked into your opponent.” There are three regular-season games left – Sunday against the Knicks, Monday against the Magic and Wednesday against the Bobcats – and Thibodeau understands one slip-up could cost the Bulls what they’ve worked so hard to earn.
Gibson knows that too, but he also takes pride in knowing that what the Bulls have done lately has the chance to be meaningful moving forward.
“We really worry about what’s in house,” Gibson said. “We really worry about what’s going on in the locker room.
“Right now, we’re just focused on basketball and making plays for each other, moving forward and getting better … Everything that’s going to come with success is going to come. But right now, we remember how nobody was on our bandwagon at the beginning of the year, how that felt, and we’re just believing in ourselves right now.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.