'Nice to be back'
The Bulls call it "the midnight rule," and the principle has guided them on this season's journey—from the dreadful 0-9 start through the January surge to the recent spate of injuries.

Its premise is simple: Enjoy the victories until midnight, then move on. Let the losses sting until the same time, then forget them.

Late Saturday, having used that strategy to weather the highs and lows that define any NBA season, the clock struck midnight on the Bulls' playoff drought.

A 110-97 victory over Toronto before a sellout crowd of 22,281 at the United Center brought the rain down in the form of a postgame standing ovation.

The 119-341 record that painfully defined the previous six seasons is now just a footnote, along with such not-so-immortal names as Dragan Tarlac, Eddie Robinson and Tim Floyd.

"I've been with the organization for 20 years as a player, coach, broadcaster and now lucky enough to be in this position," general manager John Paxson said. "All that matters to me is we're able to get this franchise back on the map."

A playing rotation centered on four rookies and two 22-year-olds helped clinch the franchise's first playoff berth since 1997-98.

"It's nice to be back," club Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said in passing after visiting a joyous postgame locker room. "It has been a while. It's nice to be competitive again."

The Bulls' 12th victory in 13 games also solidified their hold on the Eastern Conference's fourth playoff seed, despite losing starters Luol Deng to a wrist injury and Eddy Curry to an irregular heartbeat.

Fittingly, the playoff-clinching victory featured another balanced effort.

The Bulls hit eight of their first nine shots and led by as many as 21 points in the third quarter. Toronto hung around to pull within 94-85 in the fourth. Then came back-to-back jumpers from Kirk Hinrich, who led the Bulls with 25 points and eight assists, and a three-point play from Tyson Chandler, who had 18 points and 21 rebounds.

One year ago, this all seemed so improbable. Losing had permeated this franchise. Players routinely accepted defeat. Paxson, hired in April 2003, set about to reverse this culture.

He traded Jalen Rose in December 2003 and Jamal Crawford last August. He fired coach and ex-teammate Bill Cartwright in November 2003 and replaced him with Scott Skiles, who demanded accountability and a better work ethic.

The Bulls began buying in last summer, committing to an off-season workout program.

Then came the shocking 0-9 start. But instead of disgruntlement, Curry and Chandler responded to being benched, the latter thriving in a permanent reserve role.

Rookie Chris Duhon moved into the starting lineup and provided stability and savvy. Ben Gordon lit up fourth quarters like holiday storefronts. Hinrich didn't wear down despite being thrown every defensive challenge.

Veterans Antonio Davis, Othella Harrington, Adrian Griffin, Eric Piatkowski and Jannero Pargo contributed something different each night as part of the league's highest-scoring bench.

"I'm just really, really happy for my players," Skiles said. "I like to see people who work hard get rewarded."

United Center sellouts are the norm. The buzz is back.

"It's definitely satisfying to see everyone walk around this arena with their heads held high," Chandler said. "I'm talking about fans, players and people from the organization. Everyone has a glow. Their faces are so different from last year. …

"There were a lot of times I was pretty upset with the organization. But now, I couldn't have been placed on a better team as far as the respect we have for one another. It's just great."

Perhaps the best is yet to come, specifically playoff basketball at the United Center.

kcjohnson@tribune.com