Indiana had a chance to clinch its second straight Central Division title at the United Center on Monday night.
The Bulls had a chance to make a statement that, despite a season of personnel angst, they don’t plan to be slouches in the playoffs.
Give the Bulls their statement—with an exclamation point.
Before a delighted sellout of 21,803, the Bulls put on a winning show, 89-77, especially in the third quarter, when they broke out of a sluggish shooting night and flexed some muscle, too.
Taj Gibson, frustrated by the Bulls’ loss at Indiana on Friday, bounced back with a big game, finishing with 23 points and eight rebounds on 9-for-15 shooting.
Down 34-33 at halftime, the Bulls opened a 47-37 lead with 14-3 run to start the third quarter. Mike Dunleavy drained three jumpers to lead the charge. They would score 56 second-half points against the NBA’s stingiest defense.
A defining moment came when Kirk Hinrich ran down and snatched the ball from Paul George, who seemed to let up, bracing for a foul. After George (21 points) raised his hands in disbelief at the no-call, Gibson drilled home a big dunk at the other end and celebrated wildly.
The Pacers called a much needed timeout to escape the Bulls’ determined toughness.
Although it’s a ways off, it sure felt like a playoff meeting.
One thing’s for certain. Indiana’s Central Division clinching will have to wait. And even though the Pacers are sitting atop the Eastern Conference as well as the Central Division, they have gone a mere 5-7 in their last 12 games, and have lost three of four.
Meanwhile, despite losing Derrick Rose to injury and dealing Luol Deng, the Bulls were tied with Brooklyn for the most wins (28) in the Eastern Conference since Jan. 1.
The Bulls trailed 34-33 after a grinding playoff-like first half in which defense trumped scoring. The Pacers shot 35 percent and the Bulls 32 percent in that icy first half.
Considering that Jimmy Butler went to the bench after picking up his third foul with 9:35 left in the second quarter, the Bulls’ first half could have been worse.
TRIM THE NEXT TWO GRAFS IF YOU NEED A TRIM.
Roy Hibbert, who had dismissed Gibson’s assertion that the Pacers were a team of floppers, drew a strong round of boos with four minutes left before halftime.
While the Indiana center was fouled by Joakim Noah, the infraction didn’t seem sufficient to make the 7-2, 290-pound Hibbert hit the deck the way he did.
For all the Bulls’ protests about this final regular-season meeting with Indiana not having playoff implications, there seemed to be a little extra going on in this contest.
While Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau scoffed at the notion, Indiana coach Frank Vogel admitted playing the Bulls and the Heat, Indiana’s opponent on Wednesday, is different than playing a tail-ender.
“They count the same, but they certainly don’t feel the same,’’ Vogel said. “If you’re playing somebody with a poor record, it’s not going to feel the same as somebody you could see in the playoffs. The level of competition is better. It feels like the stakes are higher. I like playing games like this.’’
They can’t be nearly as fun, though, when you’re on the wrong end of the score.