CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Chicago Bulls clinched the NBA's last unclaimed playoff spot on Wednesday night, as Derrick Rose scored 27 points and Joakim Noah added 21 points and 13 rebounds in a 98-89 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats.
Overcoming numerous injuries, internal strife, key 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.
Needing a win or a Raptors loss to New York to get in, the Bulls quickly took it to the Bobcats, never trailing and leading by as many as 18 points.
Tyrus Thomas had 16 points and nine rebounds against his former team, while Gerald Wallace scored 15 points and Stephen Jackson 14 for the Bobcats, who had already locked up the seventh seed in the East and a first-round matchup with Orlando.
With former Bulls star and current Bobcats owner Michael Jordan watching from the end of the Bobcats' bench, Chicago (41-41) players exchanged high-fives at the buzzer as they clinched its second straight playoff berth and its fifth in six years.
They sure did it the hard way.
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 as the Bulls once lost 10 straight.
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 an altercation after a game last month in a dispute over the number of minutes Noah played in his return from a painful foot injury.
Not long after the Bulls released a statement downplaying the incident, the team came out with intensity the Bobcats couldn't match. A healthy Noah was dominating the inside and Rose was beating Charlotte's guards off the dribble and hitting fadeaway jumpers.
Chicago led 8-0 and 19-6. After Charlotte cut the lead to seven after the first quarter, Noah had a tip-in and Rose hit two jumpers in a 19-9 run.
The Bobcats got within 65-60 on Boris Diaw's hoop with 4:35 left in the third quarter, but Rose then 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.
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.
"My gut is we've always said, 'Let's play the right way and respect the game,'" Brown said.
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, and then a key player off the bench got hurt when center Tyson Chandler suffered a hip pointer and elbow injury.
Chandler tried to grab a deflected pass along the sideline when he collided with Chicago's James Johnson and crashed to the floor on his left elbow and side. An X-ray on his elbow was negative, but he didn't return.
Wallace, Jackson and Raymond Felton, who struggled to contain Rose, played only 24 minutes apiece.
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.