December 13, 2014

The Chicago Bulls have plummeted from preseason championship expectations to the verge of maybe the biggest disappointment in team history.

Pushing them over the edge could be a matchup with the Miami Heat, who have clinched a playoff spot and have plenty to gain from delivering another drubbing in this series.

The Heat look to continue their push for home-court advantage in the first round by sweeping the visiting Bulls on Thursday night and crushing their slim chances.

While a 3-6 stretch has left Chicago (39-39) on the verge of missing the postseason, Miami (45-32) is in a tight race for the Nos. 3-6 spots in the Eastern Conference. The Heat sit a half-game back of Southeast Division-leading Atlanta for the third seed and they're also battling for the fourth spot, which could also deliver home court to open the playoffs.

''We want to play at home in the playoffs and that is the most important thing right now,'' said point guard Goran Dragic, who had 22 points and eight assists in Tuesday's 107-89 rout of Detroit. ''We still have five games left and everything counts.''

The Heat have alternated losses and wins in the last four but are 10-2 at home and 16-8 overall since the All-Star break, when they found out Chris Bosh was again dealing with blood clot concerns.

Bosh is likely out the rest of the season, but the Heat have flourished offensively behind Dragic, Luol Deng, midseason pickup Joe Johnson and rookies Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow.

There's also Dwyane Wade and Hassan Whiteside, of course. Wade scored 16 points against the Pistons in his return from a two-game absence with back and neck injuries, and Whiteside had 14 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks, his fourth double-double in the last six games with at least those numbers.

Miami has shot at least 50 percent in 10 of the last 14 games. One was a 51.6 showing in a 118-96 win at Chicago on March 11, but that wasn't even close to its best shooting performance against the Bulls this season - a 67.5 clip in a 129-111 home win March 1. That's a team record that at the time matched the best effort in the league over the last 18 years.

Now the Heat draw a Bulls team in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. A huge blow was Tuesday's 108-92 loss to Memphis that snapped Chicago's three-game road win streak and came without Grizzlies stars Marc Gasol and Mike Conley.

"Sometimes we look like a really good team; sometimes we just look awful," guard Jimmy Butler told the team's official website. "I don't know what the basis of it is. Why? I can't answer that."

Maybe Tuesday's numbers can shed some light.

The Bulls turned the ball over 20 times, leading to 38 Memphis points, and one of the top rebounding teams in the league ended up even with the Grizzlies at 42 while allowing 12 on the offensive glass.

Derrick Rose shot 5 of 15 for 12 points after missing the previous two games with a left elbow contusion, and Butler was completely neutralized. The All-Star didn't score through three quarters and finished 2 of 8 for five points - the fifth time all season he has been held to single digits.

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