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Bulls take down Pacers in possible playoff preview

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Mar 24

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With the Bulls’ gritty 87-84 victory over the Indiana Pacers Saturday at the United Center, I’m reminded of history, of Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence.

Stay with me here.

Jefferson famously wrote about everyone being equal, though conveniently forgetting about one population group. And while I assume Jefferson wasn’t looking ahead to this season’s Eastern Conference, though he was said to be an expert Parcheesi player, the Bulls victory even without the injured Joakim Noah suggests all Eastern Conference playoff teams but one are pretty much equal.

Luol Deng

“It took heart,” said Taj Gibson, who led a strong 32-15 Bulls bench edge with 11 points and a pair of blocks. “Guys were doing what they do best. Guys were putting forth effort on defense; we were getting stops. We got a lot of big minutes out of Daequan (Cook, nine points) and Nazr Mohammed (season high 11 points starting for Noah). Guys just filling the role. Nobody complained. Guys were just playing basketball. We kept running the right plays with the right people at the right time, and it worked.”

Luol Deng snapped back from some mediocre shooting efforts with 20 points and seven rebounds and solid post play in small lineups working at power forward while Carlos Boozer added 18 point and 10 rebounds and a booming poster dunk over the languid Roy Hibbert. The win moved the 37-31 Bulls into sixth in the East, and if the playoffs began today it would be a matchup with the 43-27 Pacers.

It’s unlikely the Bulls can catch Indiana for the Central Division title and top four seed, especially with the Pacers ending 3-1 this season against the Bulls. Yes, the Pacers were without injured forward David West, who has been tough against the Bulls. But not only were Noah and Richard Hamilton out, and, of course, Derrick Rose. But Kirk Hinrich played 20 minutes with a thigh bruise. Daequan Cook, who played by far his best game as a Bull, hurt his thigh with an incredible defensive deflection and save, one of the great highlight plays of the season that reflected this Bulls’ effort at a time the team seemed in free fall.

“That is the way we have to play,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “We have to do it collectively. A lot of guys stepped up. I thought Luol was terrific; he set the tone. Carlos got going and then got in foul trouble. He played tough. Nazr Mohammed gave us a lift. Taj played great. We needed everybody.”

It’s pretty clear in this bad luck season the Bulls aren’t going to have everybody. Noah had a recurrence of his plantar fasciitis and probably is out Sunday in Minnesota. Cook is uncertain. Gibson says he’s playing through knee stiffness on his return from an MCL strain. Eddie Robinson remains day-to-day.

“I’m just trying to fly around and get back to my old self,” said Gibson, “fly around on defense, create havoc and bring energy.”

The Bulls did that when the way things have been going lately with brutal games against Portland and last week in the Western Conference and all the injuries and the uncertainty surrounding Rose the notion was this team was worn out.

But the group has a remarkable ability to erase bad memories and produce, outrebounding the Pacers and after trailing most of the game holding Indiana to 20 percent fourth quarter shooting and surviving a pair of Paul George three point attempts in the last seconds that would have tied the game.

“It is a tough rivalry,” said George, who led the Pacers with 23 points and added 11 rebounds. “Right now we’re still competing for the division championship and playoff spots. I’m very confident with this crew and going into the playoffs or wherever (that) we can win. People forget we have four All-Stars on this team.”

(That counts Hibbert, about whom the league apparently was so embarrassed he was an All-Star they eliminated the center position on the ballot this season, Danny Granger, who has been out most of the season with a bad knee, and West, who was last an All Star four years ago.)

“We have depth and versatility,” said George. “We have been scoring in the hundreds lately with a win margin in the 20′s. Our offense is clicking now with our assists going up and guys getting comfortable playing together. It’s just tough to beat a team four times. We knew it would be a grind out game and it would be tough.”

Kind of an easy excuse, that beating a team four times thing. But what this sort of game seems to suggest is that the generally offensively challenged Pacers, who decided they played Miami tough in last season’s playoffs, need to be looking behind more than ahead. George is really their only true All Star, their bench is one of the poorest in the league, their shooting guard has trouble shooting and if George Hill doesn’t get much going, as he didn’t Saturday and it’s not like he’s a big offensive threat, the Pacers search for offense.

Nazr Mohammed

No one is beating Miami. But do you fear the Knicks? Nets? Pacers? Would you be so sure the Pacers could beat the Hawks or the Nets? That the Bulls couldn’t beat the Knicks or Pacers? Or lose to them as well?

“Every win is important,” said Deng, who seemed most relieved about breaking out of his slump. “A division rivalry; it was huge. We felt we didn’t play well the last game. It was good to bounce back. This time of year you need every one.”

Though both the Bulls and Pacers would like to be rivals of the Heat, the Heat more smirks at them. When the Bulls went to the conference finals in 2011, their first round 4-1 series with the Pacers was as close as the Bulls felt their conference finals 4-1 loss to the Heat was. The Pacers melted down at the end of the first two games and Rose saved the Bulls. But it was a vicious, hard fought, physical series filled with technical fouls and cheap shots.

Most of the current Bulls weren’t there. But they’ve taken up the cause as Nate Robinson got ejected with a fine lasso takedown from behind on a Lance Stephenson run out late in the third quarter. Late in the second, Marco Belinelli drew a technical for scuffling with George and Stephenson.

You may remember how the Pacers celebrated beating the Bulls early in the 2011-12 lockout season and the Bulls, especially Rose, thought it juvenile. Hibbert made a funny face.

The Pacers certainly have been a better team than the Bulls this season. But the Bulls roughed them up Saturday and won, in large part, because of the play of Nazr Mohammed and Daequan Cook.

OK, so we have to face that question about the Bulls coach again.

Nine Bulls played at least 17 minutes each and only Deng was more than 32 with just under 36. Can you really be a successful NBA coach when you use your bench so liberally, don’t play your starters that much (Deng was the only starter to play more than half the fourth quarter) and keep going deep into the bench for guys like Mohammed and Cook, who rarely have played this season?

That wacky Thibs.

“We needed a win real bad,” said Mohammed, who was the Nazrinator with a block, seven rebounds and three assists as well. “I just tried to make it tough on Hibbert, just wanted to keep him away from the basket and challenge him. Everybody stepped up. Booz was bangin’ (Tyler) Hansbrough, Taj scoring, rebonding, challenging shots; Lu aggressive. Nate gave us a spark before the flagrant, (Marcus) Teague stepped in and played some great minutes out of the blue.”

Asked about going back to back for Noah Sunday, the 15-year veteran said, “I’ll sip some water, have a couple of Advils and I should be ready.

“It’s difficult,” Mohammed admitted about playing not so much. “But we get paid the big bucks. Nobody cares if it’s difficult. People at home, they could care less that it’s difficult to know you’re not going to play but be prepared to play. But that’s in the job description. So we got to try to do it to the best of your ability and some nights it’s going to be good, some nights it’s not.”

And this night it was, including for Cook, whose idea of hot had been rubbing sticks together much of this season before an energized effort Saturday that only ended with that hard fall on the classic defensive play.

Nate Robinson

It was 81-74 Bulls with just under four minutes remaining when Hinrich missed a three. The Pacers had led pretty much from the beginning—-22-16 after one quarter and 44-39 at halftime as All-Stars Deng and George went at it on both ends with George with 14 and Deng with 13—until a 12-4 Bulls run that started late in the third tipped the game toward the Bulls.

Cook still was firing up his share of misses. But he also was making some after not much success since coming to the team. And he especially was making plays, like his full court drive to end the third with a layup after the Pacers missed with 1.6 seconds left.

The Bulls don’t do that sort of thing much, and they were ahead 81-74 when George fired full court to Stephenson running for a layup. Cook made an amazing play to defect the pass and then chased it down and falling out of bounds got it back to Hinrich. Cook’s—now you can call him Cooky—momentum carried him into the camera people, dancers and sideline decorations. He lay there for quite a while and then was helped off.

Boozer then pretty much dominated Hansbrough for a basket and a pair of trips to the free throw line, and that was just about enough to hold off a pair of threes from Hill and George’s last attempts.

“I was out there doing what I could,” said Cook, a former three-point shot champ who came in shooting barely 30 percent on threes. “It’s all about being patient, waiting your turn, always preparing as if you will play. You never know when your name will be called.”

That’s a heck of a lot of guys who rarely ever hear their names called into the game who were in the game. And late as well as Thibodeau had fourth quarter lineups you’d imagine he’d only be playing after losing a bet. A very big one.

“That was a big time hustle play (Cook) made to come up with the ball,” said Thibodeau. “We know about his ability to shoot, but it is also the other things. That is a good sign. He was mixing it up and battling it on the boards. That (Robinson’s flagrant) was a tough play. But the thing I liked was he made unbelievable effort to get back and not concede the points. He had to make up a lot of ground, and he tried to wrap him up. (Gibson) played great for the amount of time he has been out. I thought he would be rusty. He is so active out there. That has given us a lot of energy and we really need it.”

There also was that power left handed Boozer dunk over Hibbert as the Bulls were fighting back in the third, Mohammed scoring rolling to the basket right afterward when his lack of play had suggested he could only just roll out of bed. But it was a nasty Nazr, as substantive and special as a slab of deep dish pizza. And then there was former defensive back Nate merely tracking down and tackling Stephenson from behind. What’s the big deal? It wasn’t even a horse collar.

It was 66-66 at the time. Stephenson made one free throw. Then Cook was sizzling (if this guy had played more imagine the puns) for one of the fastest full court layups in team history. And as it turned out the Pacers were done as they never again led.

“It’s a confidence boost because right now we are down a lot of guys,” said Gibson. “The main thing is just trying to get guys healthy. But we will just keep fighting with whoever we have out there. Like Thibs says, ‘We have enough to win in this locker room.’ Our guys are stepping up, putting forth effort, and tonight it showed.”

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