- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- For the second time in two days, and the third since the All-Star break, the Chicago Bulls proved they are ready to beat more than just the dregs of the NBA.
Chicago's 92-72 win over the feisty Indiana Pacers on Monday night capped off a back-to-back "revenge tour," as the Bulls beat two of the eight teams that have beaten them this season. Only the Golden State Warriors and Miami Heat remain on the checklist.
While the Bulls like to repeat coach Tom Thibodeau's devotion to recognizing equality in opponents, they wanted to beat Indiana a little more than, say, the New Orleans Hornets. It wasn't so much about Indiana celebrating after their win here in January, or the physical playoff series last year, but more about Chicago's desire to be the best team in the NBA. At 32-8, that's the Bulls' current position.
"We got the character and the guys. We know those teams beat us last time," Bulls forward Luol Deng said. "We don't want a team to keep beating us, no matter who it is. It's definitely important. This was a big game tonight. They came in here and beat us last time. They come in and beat us again, going forward, players get comfortable and get confidence. That's a big thing in this league."
Yes, the Bulls are as tough as you Grabowskis want them to be, and certainly they're for real as contenders. But once again, Rip Hamilton showed he is questionable as a missing piece to the championship puzzle.
When political svengali and big-time Bulls fan David Axelrod takes time out of needling the Mitt Romney campaign to tweet: "Pretty soon they're going to be calling him 'Tear' instead of Rip!" you know Hamilton is getting a bad reputation in Chicago. He's like a broken parking meter, costing everyone time and money.
After playing four straight games following a month-long absence with assorted lower-body injuries. Hamilton lasted 1 minute, 26 seconds before departing the game for the locker room after running into a Roy Hibbert screen in the first quarter. Hamilton has a shoulder injury, but Thibodeau said he didn't know much else. It could be a game. It could be a month.
"He will be examined [Tuesday]," Thibodeau said. "I thought it was a stinger. He tried to shake it off. That wasn't the case. We'll have to wait until [Tuesday]."
Hamilton wasn't around the locker room while the media was in there, but Ronnie Brewer, who proved once again to be a very able replacement at shooting guard, said Hamilton was upbeat, though he added that the team was "wishing him a speedy recovery."
I'm sure that was just Brewer searching for the vaguest thing to say, but it had me wondering what would happen first: me finishing my taxes or Hamilton playing again. April 17 is right around the corner.
This isn't a knock on Hamilton, just the situation. The Bulls have been very, very good with him on the floor, as expected. He certainly didn't come here to steal money in his advanced age (a year older than this columnist). The injuries are real, but I think it's safe to have a healthy skepticism about Hamilton's durability now and in the near future when it really matters. I'm not going out on a limb to think the Bulls have to try to make a move to acquire some scoring help, if there's any to be had.
The trading deadline is March 15, and despite the team's faith in Hamilton -- who could be back for the Milwaukee game Wednesday for all I knew Monday night -- it's better to be safe than sorry in the summer. Hamilton was brought in to help complement Derrick Rose in that ill-fated Eastern Conference finals series against Miami. If he can't do it, general manager Gar Forman has a little more than a week to find someone who can, luxury tax be damned.
Brewer is playing great, but he's more valuable as part of the Bench Mob, which tied the starters in points Monday at 46, though at a more effective rate. John Lucas III (13 points on 5-for-9 shooting) and the lingering Mike James (probably lit up a YMCA in New York), are fine scorers, but the Bulls are playing for a top seed. Offensive-minded backup point guard C.J. Watson also missed the game with an ankle injury after trying to play through pain Sunday. He has been through the ringer of late.
With Hamilton out, Chicago showed why it needs help offensively, and at the same time, how deep and how dangerous it can be. After an atrocious first half that found the Bulls trailing 43-42 despite Rose and Deng combining to shoot 2-for-16, the Bulls quickly turned a sluggish game into a more fast-paced affair by virtue of their smothering defense and stout rebounding. The third-quarter effort was as good as the team has played all season.
As the Bulls peaked, the energy in the United Center was tremendous as the Bulls outscored Indiana 33-13 in the third. It was like Brian Scalabrine was checking into the game. Yes, it was that nuts.
In the third, Rose and Deng combined to hit 5 of 7 3-pointers and score 19 points. The Bulls went on a 20-4 run to seize the lead. Deng finished with a team-high 20 points and Rose added 13 and nine assists.
With the Bulls trailing 47-46, Brewer started the run with a pair of baskets coming off Rose assists. Rose then hit a 3-pointer, a floater, another 3 and then, a minute later, Deng hit 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to make it 64-51. It was the shot-making that negated the scrappy Pacers, but as Deng said, the Bulls weren't focused on offense at halftime.
"When we came in at halftime, no one was talking about missing shots," he said. "No one was really talking about it at all. We just said, 'We know we got a lot of guys [who] can score.' It doesn't happen often when no one is shooting well. Someone is going to get it going. We just really talked about our defense."
And in the third quarter, offense did come from the defense, as it often does for a team that loves to stretch its legs on the break. Joakim Noah, who promised he would "out-celebrate" his counterpart Hibbert this game, had another monster rebounding game with 17. He had 18 against Philadelphia and is averaging 14 a game since the All-Star break. The Bulls outrebounded Indiana 60-32 and Indiana shot 27-for-79. Indiana went 10-for-38 in the second half.
"Rebounding the ball," Deng said as he unwrapped numerous ice packs after the game. "We played with a lot more energy in the third quarter. Jo was tremendous rebounding. It wasn't really going our way to begin with, missing a lot of shots, guys weren't shooting well. In the second half, we just found a way. We got stops and started going out and running."
Deng wound up returning to the game late after a 22-point lead dwindled to 13. Rose didn't play at all in the fourth quarter. He was stretching his back on the sideline preparing for a return when Deng and Noah went back in, but he said that was to get ready, just in case, not a sign of injury.
"He was warming up in the bullpen," Thibodeau said with a smile.
The Pacers tried to keep Rose out of the paint, but he did get some good looks that he couldn't convert. There were a lot of scowls at referees after no-calls, though.
"If anything, I wasn't finishing the way I wanted to finish," Rose said. "Some of those shots, I wasn't focused enough to follow through on them. I don't know what I was, but it was a rare game where I couldn't finish the way I want to."
Rose couldn't carry the Bulls all game, just in one quarter. It was enough. There will be nights like that again this season. The Bulls are ready to run. If Hamilton can't join them, they should find someone who can.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
The Bulls shouldn't count on Rip Hamilton staying healthy for a playoff run.