Basketball / Sports

Bulls welcome strong schedule during stretch run

CHICAGO -- When Carlos Boozer knows roughly how many days remain until the playoffs begin, it's a sure sign the dog days and All-Star break are over and the stretch run has arrived.

"We've only got 56, 57 days left before we kick it off," Boozer said after a rare practice Tuesday at the Berto Center. "So every game, especially head-to-head against a playoff team, counts big-time or counts double."

That's a reference to Wednesday's road game against the Raptors, who lead the Bulls by 1 1/2 games in the race for the Eastern Conference's third seed.

That the Bulls, who own a three-game winning streak, have extricated themselves from a miserable start, the loss of Derrick Rose and the trading of Luol Deng has the positive vibes flowing -- even if the schedule gets tougher.

The Raptors game is one of 16 in the remaining 30 against teams currently in playoff position. And as close as the Bulls are to the third seed, they also sit just 2 1/2 games ahead of the seventh-place Nets.

"It's great for us," Boozer said of the tougher schedule. "We always play good against good teams. The more playoff teams you play against gets you more playoff-ready. So it can only help us."

Boozer said the sore left calf that sidelined him for three games, before he returned for the pre-break finale against the Nets, improved further during the break. And the one-two punch of All-Star commitments and Bourbon Street didn't affect Joakim Noah, whom coach Tom Thibodeau cited for a "great practice" Tuesday.

That practice featured some rarities. It was the Bulls' first at the Berto Center since Jan. 9, a nod to Thibodeau's pacing, using shootarounds and walk-throughs as practices and the lack of available bodies. With 12 available Tuesday, Thibodeau even called for a scrimmage.

"When you're coming off a break, you want to get used to handling the ball again, playing at game speed," he said. "So we did a little bit of everything -- some defense, some shooting, ball handling, scrimmaging, special situations."

Noah, too, is a fan of the stronger stretch schedule.

"We're playing against a lot of very good teams. That gets you ready for the playoffs," he said. "The intensity is higher. The talent is better.

"There are 30 games left. We ended the break pretty well. We're playing good basketball now. It's not time to exhale. We have to keep pushing. And then the fun starts."

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