Bulls clinch final playoff spot, while Mavs, Spurs key Texas rematch
The Bulls eighth seed in the East and a date with the Cavaliers
The Mavs beat the Spurs to seize the No. 2 seed, dropping San Antonio to seventh
The last night of the NBA season gave Kevin Durant his first scoring title, and finally sorted out the Western Conference postseason race.
The Bulls secured the remaining playoff spot, beating Charlotte 98-89 Wednesday to set up a first-round series against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Chicago finished a game ahead of Toronto, which owned the tiebreaker and would have advanced if the Bulls lost.
Chicago won its final three games, ignoring the distractions created Tuesday when a Yahoo! Sports report surfaced that coach Vinny Del Negro and Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson got into a physical altercation after a game last month
"You know what I love about this team?" Chicago's Joakim Noah said. "I feel that even when times were hard, we went on a 10-game losing streak, I feel like we never let down. We always believed in each other. To be in this position right now is a great feeling, and I feel it's really deserving."
The Mavericks' 96-89 victory over the Spurs gave Dallas the No. 2 seed and dropped San Antonio to seventh, so the Texas rivals will meet in the postseason for the second straight year. The Mavs knocked off the Spurs last season.
"If they're looking for us," Dallas center Brendan Haywood said, "they'll see us this weekend."
Only two playoff matchups, one in each conference, had been determined entering the final night of the regular season. The East was settled after victories by Chicago and Miami, while the West went even longer.
Phoenix earned the No. 3 spot with its 100-86 victory in Utah. That gave the No. 4 seed and the Northwest Division title to Denver, with the Jazz falling to fifth.
The Suns went 23-6 after the All-Star break and will face the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers.
"It was a great way to finish the regular season -- for a team that was picked by many to be on the outside looking into the playoffs or at the bottom of the playoff list," Suns guard Steve Nash said. "To finish third in the West is rewarding. And most importantly we're playing well and heading into the playoffs fairly good."
Miami claimed the East's No. 5 seed with a 94-86 double-overtime victory over New Jersey and will oppose the Boston Celtics. Though they've played poorly in the second half of the season, the Celtics insist they are ready because their Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen is healthy.
"This is the healthiest we've been," coach Doc Rivers said. "I think this is the best Kevin's been since early in the season. I think Paul is feeling fantastic right now."
Milwaukee is the sixth seed and plays No. 3 Atlanta. The Hawks hung around the locker room after their 99-83 victory over Cleveland to watch the end of Miami's win. If the Heat lost, Atlanta would have played Miami for the second straight year.
"Yeah, we were paying attention," center Al Horford said.
Did it matter who you played?
"Not really. But now we have to start focusing on Milwaukee."
The only West series that was already finalized before Wednesday was the top-seeded and defending champion Los Angeles Lakers facing playoff newcomer Oklahoma City and Durant, who at 21 years old became the league's youngest scoring champion.
"It's going to be cool to go home and my friends say, 'You were the scoring champ at 21 years old.' That's a blessing," Durant said. "It's something I can't take for granted and I've just got to continue to work from here."
The playoffs begin Saturday with the Bulls visiting the Cavaliers, who might be a little rusty after James sat the final four games and chose not to bring Shaquille O'Neal back from a thumb injury before the end of the regular season.
The Atlanta-Milwaukee and Boston-Miami series also begin Saturday, as does Utah-Denver -- after some late-night rescheduling. That series was originally slated to open Sunday, but the NHL's Colorado Avalanche are scheduled for a home game that night, so the Phoenix-Portland series took the Sunday night slot instead.
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